Autoimmune hepatitis, formerly known as lupoid hepatitis, plasma cell hepatitis, or autoimmune chronic active hepatitis, is a chronic, autoimmune disease of the liver that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks liver cells, causing the liver to be inflamed. Common initial symptoms may include fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, or weight loss or signs of acute liver inflammation including fever, jaundice, and right upper quadrant abdominal pain. Individuals with autoimmune hepatitis often have no initial symptoms and the disease may be detected by abnormal liver function tests and increased protein levels during routine bloodwork or the observation of an abnormal-looking liver during abdominal surgery.
Anomalous presentation of MHC class II receptors on the surface of liver cells, possibly due to genetic predisposition or acute liver infection, causes a cell-mediated immune response against the body’s own liver, resulting in autoimmune hepatitis. This abnormal immune response results in inflammation of the liver, which can lead to further symptoms and complications such as fatigue and cirrhosis. The disease is most often diagnosed in patients in their late teens or early 20s and between the ages of 40 and 50. It affects women more commonly than men.
Autoimmune hepatitis may present completely asymptomatic (12–35% of the cases), with signs of chronic liver disease, or acute or even fulminant hepatic failure.
People usually present with one or more nonspecific, long-lasting symptoms such as fatigue, general ill health, lethargy, weight loss, mild right upper quadrant abdominal pain, malaise, anorexia, itching, nausea, jaundice or joint pain especially affecting the small joints. Rarely, rash or unexplained fever may appear. In women, the absence of menstruation (amenorrhoea) is a frequent feature. Physical examination may be normal, but it may also reveal signs and symptoms of chronic liver disease. Many people have only laboratory abnormalities as their initial presentation, as unexplained increase in transaminases and are diagnosed during an evaluation for other reasons. Others have already developed cirrhosis at diagnosis. Of note, alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin are usually normal.
The prevailing theory for the development of autoimmune hepatitis is thought to be the interplay of genetic predisposition, an environmental trigger (virus, drugs, herbs, immunizations), and failure of the native immune system resulting in chronic inflammation of hepatocytes and subsequent fibrosis of the liver.
There is no specific evidence of the cause. Sixty percent of patients have findings associated with chronic hepatitis but without serologic evidence of a viral infection. The disease is strongly associated with anti-smooth muscle autoantibodies.
The exact genes and triggers responsible remain undefined, but studies show association of early-onset, severe disease with the HLA-DR3 serotype and late-onset disease with the HLA-DR4 serotype.