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What is an Autoimmune Liver Disease?

By Dulce Corazon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Autoimmune liver disease, more commonly known as autoimmune hepatitis, is a medical condition where the body’s own immune system is abnormally attacking the cells in the liver. Normally, the immune system is the body’s main defense against foreign agents entering the body. This abnormal attack of the immune system on its own liver cells causes inflammation, which may later progress to extensive liver damage, liver cancer, and liver failure. The disease can begin at any time, with no specific predisposition to ethnicity and age group. It is, however, more common in women than men.

Most autoimmune disorders, such as the autoimmune liver disease, cause the body to produce autoantibodies, or cells that attack the body’s own tissues and cells, often resulting in inflammation and eventually, damage to the organ. The cause for this mechanism is still unknown but inherited genetic predispositions frequently play a role in the development of many autoimmune diseases. Certain drugs, bacteria, or viruses may also bring about the internal changes in the body’s immune system, causing it to attack itself.

During the early stage of autoimmune liver disease, the patient may have no complaints at all. The most common autoimmune liver disease symptom felt by some patients, however, is easy fatigability. Painful joints, stomach pain, the presence of rashes, and changes in the color of the urine and stool are also noted. As the disease progresses and effects on the liver become more severe, the patient may present with jaundice, which is the yellowish discoloration of the eyes and the skin. He may also experience weight loss, mental confusion, and ascites, which is the accumulation of fluid in the abdomen.

Diagnosing autoimmune liver diseases is made possible through the use of an autoimmune disease liver panel. It is generally a series of tests that screen for the presence and the levels of antibodies, which are cells produced by the immune system. Examples of these antibodies for which doctors test are the anti-liver microsomal antibodies, anti-smooth muscle antibodies, anti-nuclear antibodies, and anti-mitochondrial antibodies. An adequate amount of blood is obtained from a vein using a needle on a syringe and the sample is sent to the laboratory for analysis.

Patients with autoimmune liver disease are usually treated by liver specialists. Patients may benefit from the use of immunosuppresive drugs such as prednisone. These are drugs used to suppress the function of the immune system, thus, preventing further attacks to the already weakened liver. People who use these drugs are usually advised to watch out for their side effects, which include development of eye problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, weight gain, and osteoporosis, which is the weakening of bones. For patients who fail to respond to prednisone therapy and eventually progress to liver failure, a liver transplant may be deemed necessary.

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