Your liver is a vital organ that performs over 500 functions. It plays an essential role in removing toxins from your blood and in the digestive process. More than 100 different diseases can affect the liver – and one of them is autoimmune hepatitis.
What is autoimmune hepatitis?
Autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) is a liver condition that occurs when your body’s immune system goes rogue and attacks your own liver cells when it should be fighting germs instead.
An attack like that can seriously damage your liver cells and cause chronic inflammation. Over time, inflammation can lead to scarring of the liver (cirrhosis), which may eventually lead to a liver transplant to avoid progressing to liver failure.
Early diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune hepatitis may help to protect your liver.
There are two recognised types of autoimmune hepatitis.
Type 1 is the most common and can occur at any age. While adults can sometimes develop type 2, it mostly affects children and young people.
What causes autoimmune hepatitis?
We haven’t yet pinpointed the exact cause of autoimmune hepatitis but it appears to be triggered by a complex interaction of genetic and environmental factors.
You’re more likely to develop AIH if you’re female or if you already have another autoimmune disease like type 1 diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or coeliac disease.
It can go the other way too – about 25-50% of people with AIH go on to develop another autoimmune condition. If your immune system has attacked your body once, it’s more likely to do so again.
You might not experience any symptoms of autoimmune hepatitis until the condition is quite far advanced. If you do experience symptoms, they may include:
- Jaundice – yellow skin or whites of the eyes
- Nausea or vomiting
- Tummy aches
- Mild flu-like symptoms
- Weight loss
- Paler poos
- Darker urine
- Joint pain
- Enlarged liver or spleen
- Spider veins on the skin
- Periods stopping.
Because many of those symptoms could easily be caused by a different medical condition, it’s important that you get the right diagnosis. See your GP initially. They may refer you to a doctor who specialises in digestive and liver disorders such as a gastroenterologist or hepatologist.
Your doctor may order blood tests and/or a liver biopsy to diagnose autoimmune hepatitis.
At Moonee Valley Specialist Centre, we’ve chosen a more high-tech, less invasive approach. We use a liver scan called the FibroScan® 502 Touch. A liver scan takes about 10 minutes and is similar to an ultrasound. It enables us to assess whether you have any liver damage and make well-informed recommendations for treatment. You don’t need a referral for this.
Autoimmune hepatitis treatment
If you’ve developed autoimmune hepatitis, you’ll need to see a gastroenterologist regularly for many years. You’ll also need regular blood tests or scans to check your liver function and to monitor disease progression.
The goal of treatment is to slow down or stop your immune system’s attack on your liver. Initially, that usually involves taking a steroid, sometimes with another medication. You may start off on a high dose then reduce the dose over time to avoid side effects, trying to find the lowest dose that still controls your symptoms.
Some people are able to stop medication eventually because their disease is in remission. Others find they need to keep taking the medication or the condition returns.
If medication doesn’t succeed in defending your liver or if you develop cirrhosis or liver failure, you may need a liver transplant.
How Moonee Valley Specialist Centre can help
We understand that any liver condition is concerning. Our empathetic and caring team can provide assessments, diagnosis, and management for autoimmune hepatitis.
Dr Nathan Connelly is experienced in helping patients, focusing on providing holistic care to each person.
Please see your GP and ask for a referral.
*All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Moonee Valley Specialist Centre can consult with you to confirm if a particular treatment or procedure is right for you.