Autoimmune Hepatitis

Autoimmune hepatitis is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks liver cells. Researchers think a genetic factor may make some people more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. About 70 percent of those with autoimmune hepatitis are female, usually between the ages of 15 and 40.

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The disease is usually quite serious and, if not treated, gets worse over time. Autoimmune hepatitis is typically chronic, meaning it can last for years, and can lead to cirrhosis—scarring and hardening—of the liver. Eventually, liver failure can result.

There are two forms of autoimmune hepatitis. The more common form is type I, which most often affects young women and may be found in association with other autoimmune disorders. Type 1 is the most common form in North America. It can occur at any age but most often starts in adolescence or young adulthood. Type II is much less common and has been found to affect mostly girls between the ages of 2 and 14.

Treatment works best when autoimmune hepatitis is diagnosed early. With proper treatment, autoimmune hepatitis can usually be controlled. In fact, studies show that sustained response to treatment stops the disease from getting worse and may reverse some of the damage.

The primary treatment is medicine to suppress, or slow down, an overactive immune system. Both types of autoimmune hepatitis are treated with daily doses of a corticosteroid called prednisone. Another medicine, azathioprine is also used to treat autoimmune hepatitis.

In about seven out of 10 people, the disease goes into remission within 3 years of starting treatment. Some people can eventually stop treatment, although many will see the disease return. Treatment with low doses of prednisone or azathioprine may be necessary on and off for years, if not for life.