Autoimmune hepatitis is a very rare chronic disease that affects the liver. It occurs when the immune system mistakes the liver for a foreign invader and attacks it. Over time, these attacks can lead to cirrhosis of the liver and even organ failure. Treatment and monitoring are crucial to prevent these dire consequences. There are two different types of autoimmune hepatitis. Type 1 can affect anyone of any age, although it is important to note it is extremely uncommon. Type 2 is typically diagnosed in children and usually does not develop in adulthood. Both types have a variety of causes, from heredity to viral infections.
One of the underlying causes of autoimmune hepatitis is genetics. A family history of this disease or other autoimmune diseases increases an individual’s risk of developing autoimmune hepatitis. Scientists have not yet discovered specific gene mutations that might cause it. However, autoimmune hepatitis does seem to run in families, indicating there is likely an inherited gene mutation associated with it. With the advances in modern genomics, there may be a way to test for this gene mutation in the near future. Someone who has this gene mutation would not necessarily develop autoimmune hepatitis. Rather, they would be more susceptible than the average person. Genetic susceptibility is just one of many factors that contribute to causing the disease.
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In the case of autoimmune hepatitis, genes and environmental factors seem to work together to cause an immune reaction. Someone can have the genetic makeup to develop autoimmune hepatitis but never get sick. This, scientists believe, is because the damaged genes require an environmental trigger to become activated. It is not possible, however, to avoid these environmental triggers, for the most part. The environmental factors that cause autoimmune hepatitis are things like viruses and certain medications. Everyone comes down with viruses sometimes, even despite meticulous hygiene. Medications are sometimes necessary, and there is no way to predict if a certain one will cause an autoimmune disease.
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Injury to the liver can cause autoimmune hepatitis or an illness that mimics autoimmune hepatitis. Liver damage can be caused by rare side effects of some medications and herbal remedies. It can also result from overconsumption of alcohol or ingestion of certain poisons. Over time, a damaged liver can accumulate scar tissue, leading to cirrhosis. This is a severe chronic condition that prevents the liver from functioning normally. Symptoms of liver injury include extreme tiredness, abnormally dark urine, and yellowing of the skin and eyes. If these symptoms are ignored, the condition may progress to liver failure, at which point it may still be possible to save part of the liver. In some cases, the patient may require a liver transplant. Transplants are usually used as a last resort for people with autoimmune hepatitis, but they have a high success rate.
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Viruses And Infections
Sometimes, viruses and infections can trigger autoimmune diseases such as autoimmune hepatitis. This happens when the immune system gets confused and begins to attack the body’s own cells after fighting off a certain type of virus or bacteria. This may be because certain cells in the body resemble bacteria or viruses, at least from the point of view of the immune cells. In the case of autoimmune hepatitis, there may be a virus or bacteria with some of the same markers as liver cells. When the body develops an immunity to that virus or bacteria, it also develops an immunity to the liver cells by mistake. There is no known way to prevent this from happening. Once the immune system starts mistakenly recognizing something as a threat, it cannot return to normal.
Keep reading to learn about how autoimmune hepatitis is diagnosed.
Diagnosing The Condition
The first step to diagnosing autoimmune hepatitis is a physical examination. This is based on visible and palpable symptoms, such as jaundice, skin abnormalities, liver enlargement, and swelling. The doctor may palpitate the patient’s abdomen to feel if the liver is abnormally enlarged or not. They may also ask questions about alcohol consumption, medications, and other autoimmune conditions the patient might have. If the doctor suspects autoimmune hepatitis is possible, they will then order some combination of blood tests, scans, and a biopsy. Typical blood tests for autoimmune hepatitis will check liver enzyme levels as well as the presence or absence of autoantibodies. Scans and biopsies can reveal scarring, cirrhosis, and other signs of disease.