Autoimmune hepatitis

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Autoimmune hepatitis
Autoimmune hepatitis - cropped - very high mag.jpg
Micrograph showing a lymphoplasmacytic interface hepatitis—the characteristic histomorphologic finding of autoimmune hepatitis. Liver biopsy. H&E stain.
SpecialtyGastroenterology, hepatology Edit this on Wikidata
SymptomsOften asymptomatic, fatigue, right upper abdominal pain, anorexia, nausea, jaundice, joint pain, rash
Usual onset40-50 years of age
TypesType 1, type 2, type 3, seronegative
Risk factorsFemale gender, additional autoimmune disease
Diagnostic methodLiver biopsy
Differential diagnosisPrimary biliary cholangitis
Primary sclerosing cholangitis
TreatmentPrednisone, Azathioprine
FrequencyIncidence 1-2 per 100,000 per year
Prevalence 10-20 per 100,000

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.[1]

Anomalous presentation of MHC class II receptors on the surface of liver cells,[2] 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.[3] 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.[4]

Signs and symptoms[edit]

Autoimmune hepatitis may present completely asymptomatic (12–35% of the cases), with signs of chronic liver disease, or acute or even fulminant hepatic failure.[5][6]

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.[6] Of note, alkaline phosphatase and bilirubin are usually normal.

Autoimmune hepatitis may overlap with other autoimmune conditions, mainly type 1 diabetes mellitus, ulcerative colitis, lupus, celiac disease, vasculitis, and autoimmune thyroiditis.[5]


60% of patients have chronic hepatitis that may mimic viral hepatitis, but without serologic evidence of a viral infection. The disease is strongly associated with anti-smooth muscle autoantibodies. The current theory for the cause is that the disease is triggered by an environmental cause (virus, drugs, herbs, immunizations) in a genetically predisposed individual. 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.[7]


The diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis is best achieved with a combination of clinical, laboratory, and histological findings after excluding other etiological factors (e.g. viral [such as the Epstein-Barr virus], hereditary, metabolic, cholestatic, and drug-induced liver diseases). The requirement for histological examination necessitates a liver biopsy, typically performed with a needle by the percutaneous route, to provide liver tissue.


A number of specific antibodies found in the blood (antinuclear antibody (ANA), anti-smooth muscle antibody (SMA), anti-liver kidney microsomal antibodies (LKM-1, LKM-2, LKM-3), anti soluble liver antigen (SLA), liver–pancreas antigen (LP), and anti-mitochondrial antibody (AMA)) are of use, as is finding an increased immunoglobulin G level. The presence of anti-mitochondrial antibody is more suggestive of primary biliary cholangitis. Hypergammaglobulinemia is also of diagnostic value.[8]


Histological features supportive of a diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis include:[9]

  • A mixed inflammatory infiltrate centered on the portal tract
    • The inflammatory infiltrate may breach the interface between the portal tract and liver parenchyma: so-called interface hepatitis
    • The most numerous cell in the infiltrate is the CD4-positive T cell.
    • Plasma cells may be present within the infiltrate. These are predominantly IgG-secreting.
    • Eosinophils may be present within the infiltrate.
    • Emperipolesis, where there is penetration of one cell through another, within the inflammatory infiltrate
  • Varying degrees of necrosis of periportal hepatocytes.
    • In more severe cases, necrosis may become confluent with necrotic bridges forming between central veins.
  • Hepatocyte apoptosis manifest as acidophils or apoptotic bodies.
  • Rosettes of regenerating hepatocytes.
  • Any degree of fibrosis from none to advanced cirrhosis
  • Biliary inflammation without destruction of biliary epithelial cells in a minority of cases.

Diagnostic scoring[edit]

Expert opinion has been summarized by the International Autoimmune Hepatitis Group, which has published criteria which utilize clinical, laboratory, and histological data that can be used to help determine if a patient has autoimmune hepatitis.[10] A calculator based on those criteria is available online.[11]


Overlapping presentation with primary biliary cholangitis and primary sclerosing cholangitis has been observed.[12]


Four subtypes of autoimmune hepatitis are recognised, but the clinical utility of distinguishing subtypes is limited.

  • Type 1 AIH. Positive ANA and SMA,[13] elevated immunoglobulin G (classic form, responds well to low dose steroids);
  • Type 2 AIH. Positive LKM-1 (typically female children and teenagers; disease can be severe), LKM-2 or LKM-3;
  • Type 3 AIH. Positive antibodies against soluble liver antigen[14] (this group behaves like group 1)[15] (anti-SLA, anti-LP)
  • AIH with no autoantibodies detected (~20%)[citation needed] (of debatable validity/importance)


The choice for medical treatment should be based on the individual's severity of symptoms, quantitative elevation of liver enzymes and antibody levels, findings on liver biopsy, and ability to tolerate side effects of medical therapy.

Generally, treatment is not required in asymptomatic patients with normal liver enzyme and antibody levels and liver biopsies that do not demonstrate inflammation because these patients are at a low risk of disease progression. In symptomatic individuals with evidence of interface hepatitis and necrosis on liver biopsy, it is recommended to offer treatment especially if the patient is young and can tolerate the side effects of medical therapy.

The mainstay of treatment involves the use of immunosuppressive glucocorticoids such as prednisone during acute episodes and resolution of symptoms can be achieved in up to 60–80% of cases, although many will eventually experience a relapse.[16] In individuals with moderate to severe disease who may not tolerate glucocorticoids, lower dose prednisone monotherapy or combination with azathioprine is a reasonable alternative. Budesonide has been shown to be more effective in inducing remission than prednisone, but evidence is scare and more data is needed before it can be routinely recommended.[17] Those with autoimmune hepatitis who do not respond to glucocorticoids and azathioprine may be given other immunosuppressives like mycophenolate, ciclosporin, tacrolimus, methotrexate, etc. Liver transplantation may be required if patients do not respond to drug therapy or when patients present with fulminant liver failure.[18]


Without treatment, the 10-year survival rate for individuals with symptomatic autoimmune hepatitis is 50%. However, with treatment, the 10-year survival rate is above 90%. Despite the benefits of treatment, people with autoimmune hepatitis generally have a lower transplant-free survival than the general population.[19][20][21]

Additionally, presentation and response to therapy appears to differ according to race. For instance, African Americans appear to present with a more aggressive disease that is associated with worse outcomes.[22][23] If untreated, the mortality rate for severe autoimmune hepatitis may be as high as 40 percent.[4]

Outcomes with liver transplant are generally favorable, with a five-year survival greater than 80 percent.[4] There has been strong evidence that patients with autoimmune hepatitis can develop mental health disorders like Schizophrenia and Bipolar disorder later in their life.[24]


Autoimmune hepatitis has an incidence of 1-2 per 100,000 per year, and a prevalence of 10-20/100,000. As with most other autoimmune diseases, it affects women much more often than men (70%).[25]

The disease may occur in any ethnic group and at any age, but is most often diagnosed in patients between age 40 and 50.[4]


Autoimmune hepatitis was previously called "lupoid" hepatitis. It was originally described in the early 1950s.[26]

Most patients do have an associated autoimmune disorder such as systemic lupus erythematosus. Thus, its name was previously lupoid hepatitis.

Because the disease has multiple different forms, and is not always associated with systemic lupus erythematosus, lupoid hepatitis is no longer used. The current name at present is autoimmune hepatitis (AIH).


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  2. ^ Franco, A; Barnaba, V; Natali, P; Balsano, C; Musca, A; Balsano, F (May–June 1988). "Expression of class I and class II major histocompatibility complex antigens on human hepatocytes". Hepatology. 8 (3): 449–54. doi:10.1002/hep.1840080302. PMID 2453428. S2CID 23341082.
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External resources