Hep B Blog

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Hemochromatosis: Treatment, the Liver, and Hepatitis B

Genetic conditions can be an unfortunate part of life, but with information and support, some can be managed. By sharing your family health history and learning about genetic disorders that run in the family, measures can be taken to prevent damage and help your loved ones stay healthy!

Hereditary hemochromatosis is one of the most common genetic disorders. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 80-90% of hemochromatosis cases are from the hereditary form of the condition1. Due to a mutation in the HFE gene, the body begins to produce too much iron – a process

Northern European Countries

called iron overload. Iron overload can cause complications in the liver, heart, and pancreas2. According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD), hereditary hemochromatosis has several names that all refer to the same disorder: bronze diabetes, classic hemochromatosis, hemochromatosis type I, hemosiderosis, HFE-related hemochromatosis, HH, and primary hemochromatosis. The two non-hereditary forms of hemochromatosis are secondary hemochromatosis and neonatal hemochromatosis. Both are considered to be rare. Although the hereditary form is common, the exact number of patients worldwide is unknown. Globally, it is estimated that 1 in 227 individuals of Northern European descent is living with hemochromatosis. In the U.S, an estimated 1 million individuals are impacted as well 2

Not everyone who has the mutant gene develops hemochromatosis. These individuals are known as “carriers”; they can pass the gene on without suffering from the symptoms. Symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, abdominal pain, unexplained weight loss, and a bronze or grey skin color. For most patients, symptoms do not appear until middle age (40-60) because it takes time for the iron to build up in the body. Males tend to be affected more often than women and experience symptoms at a younger age as well 3,2. Some carriers for the mutant gene may develop a more severe version of the disorder called juvenile hemochromatosis. With juvenile hemochromatosis, patients experience an excessive amount of iron overload that can lead to liver and heart damage between the ages of 15 and 30.

Hemochromatosis, the Liver, and Hepatitis B

While the body needs a certain amount of iron to function, iron overload can be dangerous.  Hemochromatosis can lead to two major liver issues: hepatomegaly and cirrhosis. Hepatomegaly is the enlargement of the liver and cirrhosis is the scarring of the liver. Both issues can impair the liver’s ability to function and filter out toxins that enter the body. They can also increase a person’s risk of developing liver cancer. Recently, two major studies by the University of Exeter and the U.K. University of Connecticut, and the U.S. National Institute on Aging have found that a person living with hemochromatosis has four times the risk of developing a liver disease than a person who is living with the disorder.

For individuals living with hepatitis B, it is extremely important to understand any behaviors or conditions that may have a negative impact on your liver. Since one liver disease can increase your risk of another liver disease, it is important to identify the disorder as early as possible, especially if you have any of the following risk factors:

Risk Factors for Hereditary Hemochromatosis:

  • Men or postmenopausal women
  • Of Northern European descent
  • Having a relative with hemochromatosis

Risk Factors for Secondary Hemochromatosis:

  • Alcoholism
  • Family history of diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease
  • Taking iron or vitamin C supplements

Hepatitis B patients do not have an increased risk of developing hemochromatosis4. However, if you have any of the above risk factors, it is important to get tested. Hemochromatosis can easily be identified by a comprehensive look at a person’s family health history, a physical exam, and a simple blood sample. Your doctor will then use the blood sample to run a series of tests that may include transferrin saturation (TS), serum ferritin, or liver function tests. In certain cases, the doctor may also perform genetic testing to see if the mutant HFE gene is present.

Treatment

Treatment for hemochromatosis is available! Based up tests results, family history, medical history, and the appearance of symptoms, the doctor may suggest a few different treatment methods. In therapeutic phlebotomy – the most common treatment method – a patient undergoes regular blood draw to lower the amount of iron in the body. This method is effective, affordable, and typically lasts for an extended period of time. Through iron chelation therapy, patients can either receive an injection or orally consume a medication that will lower the amount of iron in your blood. Finally, some doctors may suggest changes to your diet, such as eating less vitamin C, avoiding alcohol and shellfish, and not taking iron supplements. Dietary changes are mainly used to prevent liver damage.

For more information on HH, you can visit the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

References:

  1. Grosse, S. (2017). A New Public Health Assessment of the Disease Burden of Hereditary Hemochromatosis: How Clinically Actionable is C282Y Homozygosity? [Blog]. Retrieved from https://blogs-origin.cdc.gov/genomics/2017/08/16/a-new-public-health-assessment/
  2. National Organization for Rare Disorders. (2019). Classic Hereditary Hemochromatosis. Retrieved from https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/classic-hereditary-hemochromatosis/#general-discussion
  3. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2019). Hemochromatosis. Retrieved from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/liver-disease/hemochromatosis
  4. Beaton, M., & Adams, P. (2007). The Myths and Realities of Hemochromatosis. Canadian Journal Of Gastroenterology, 21(2), 101-104. doi: 10.1155/2007/619401

Perspective on the Liver Biopsy – “The Gold Standard”

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Have you noticed fewer patients living with chronic HBV seem to get liver biopsies to assess liver damage?  Here is a perspective on the Liver Biopsy, known as the “gold standard”, by William Carey, MD, Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology of the Cleveland Clinic.

Published in Healio , July 14, 2014 

Liver biopsy is referred to as the “gold standard” in assessing both the activity and degree of fibrosis in many chronic liver diseases including hepatitis B. It is not likely to retain this lofty status much longer. Liver biopsy has several important drawbacks. Among them are cost, risk for complications, need for additional health care resources, patient and physician aversion to the procedure, inadequate specimen size and the lack of specific findings.

Liver biopsy adds between $2,500 to $3,500 to the cost of an evaluation (even higher for transvenous liver biopsy). Approximately 20% of patients will experience significant pain following percutaneous liver biopsy. More severe complications include pneumothorax, major bleeding, inadvertent biopsy of the kidney or colon, and perforation of the gallbladder. Death, most often due to uncontrolled bleeding, may occur in up to 1 in 1,000 biopsies. Underappreciated is the risk of no-representative sampling, either because of the small size of biopsy specimen or patchy distribution of fibrosis.

Noninvasive measures to assess hepatic fibrosis have been around for a generation and are increasingly used as a substitute for liver biopsy. The 2014 medley of noninvasive estimates of hepatic fibrosis includes FibroTest/FibroSure, APRI, FIB-4, other serum based test combinations, and elastography (either ultrasound- or MRI-based). Noninvasive tests have potential both for determination of current liver damage and for monitoring disease progression. They can be done at a fraction of the cost of a liver biopsy. Salkic and colleagues have reported the results of an exquisitely performed meta-analysis of peer reviewed published reports and confirmed the value of FibroTest/FibroSure in hepatitis B — mainly in excluding the diagnosis of cirrhosis. The findings of this review are restricted to hepatitis B, but others have shown similar findings in hepatitis C and alcoholic liver disease.

While there is growing consensus that noninvasive markers provide valuable information, allowing the clinician to make important decisions about treatment, screening for varices and hepatocellular carcinoma, it is essential to understand limitations of FibroTest, including distortions in results in individuals with Gilbert’s syndrome and in those with hemolysis. This study reiterates the relative insensitivity of noninvasive tests in discriminating between lesser degrees of fibrosis (F0, F1, and F2).

Data are accumulating to suggest noninvasive markers (combining a noninvasive test plus ultrasound-based elastrography, for example) are powerful tools in assessing natural history of individuals with many chronic liver diseases including hepatitis B, providing indices of disease activity, progression and fibrosis regression after treatment. Convenience, lower cost, and ease of repeated measurements over time favor widespread acceptance of these tools in clinical practice.

Got HBV? What is Your Skin Trying to Tell You?

The liver is the largest solid organ in the body, and your skin is the largest organ.  It only makes sense that the skin may be a window into what is going on inside your body and your liver.  The problem is trying to figure out what your skin is trying to tell you!

The most common skin manifestation associated with “hepatitis” is the yellowing of the skin (jaundice) and the sclera, or white part of the eye.  Jaundice  may be associated with a newly acquired or acute hepatitis B infection.  It certainly gets your attention and gets you to the door of your doctor, which is a good thing.  However, keep in mind that HBV is often asymptomatic, with few or no obvious symptoms, and jaundice is a more severe symptom of an acute HBV infection. Jaundice may also occur in those with advanced liver disease, and a decompensated liver. Jaundice is due to an accumulation of bilirubin, a yellow pigment, in the blood and tissues.  Your liver is responsible for controlling the levels of bilirubin.  If your liver is having problems performing basic, yet essential functions, yellow skin, eyes, dark urine, and itching (pruritus) may all be due to an inability to filter excess bilirubin.  Please see your doctor immediately if you experience jaundice of the skin or eyes.

It is also not uncommon for those with more advanced liver disease such as cirrhosis to have palmar erythema, which presents like red palms –especially around the base of the thumb and little finger.  Keep in mind that there may be other reasons for experiencing red palms, such as high blood pressure, pregnancy, or elevated estrogen levels. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Spider nevi or spider angioma are another indicator of more serious liver disease. These are not to be confused with spider veins. It is also important to note that 10-15% of healthy adults and children have spider nevi, with no underlying disease. They range in size from 0.5 to 1 cm in diameter, with a dark center, radiating out to fine, red lines. When the center is depressed with the finger, the radiating lines disappear, and then re-appear, when the finger is lifted. Spider nevi may be caused by an increased level of estrogen in the body.  Naturally these may also appear during pregnancy, and in women using oral contraceptives. Following pregnancy and the discontinuation of contraceptives, the spider angiomas will disappear on their own. Like so many basic, but essential functions, the liver is responsible for breaking down and removing excess estrogen. Spider nevi associated with liver disease tend to be large in number and appear on the upper part of the body, face, and neck – especially on the backs of the hands and arms. Once again, it is a good idea to point out these out to your doctor.

Gianotti-Crosti Syndrome is a rash associated with HBV and EBV (Epstein Barr Virus). This rash almost always occurs in children, with 90% of kids under the age of four. The rash may last from two to eight weeks. Basically, it’s just a response to a virus, and nothing to worry about – just an indicator. Kids often have a rash for one reason or another.  If the rash is excessively itchy, talk to your pediatrician about using a topical steroid. Every parent of a child with HBV is convinced their child has some sort of HBV associated rash. (Speaking from experience…) Even the pediatric liver specialist was unsure, so she got a consult with a pediatric dermatologist.  The rash was unrelated to HBV.

Wondering about your finger nails?  There’s a condition called Terry’s Nails which is present in many of those with cirrhosis. The nail appears mostly white, similar to the appearance of “ground glass”, and possibly with a little pink strip at the top of the nail bed.  This is due to a decrease in blood flow to the nail bed and an increase in connective tissue.  Remember that your doctor will not be able to see any of this if you wear nail polish to your appointment.

How about your basic rash that is associated with hepatitis B?  Rashes are most often associated with acute hepatitis B infections, although a recurring rash may occur in those chronically infected.  Talk to people living with HBV and they’ll tell you they have occasional rashes and annoying itching, even if their doctor may tell them they do not.  Could be totally unrelated, or it could be erythematous papular lesions, or palpable purpura.  In other words, your basic red or purplish, raised, bumpy rash. It’s not easy to find specific information linking your basic rash to HBV, but when you consider how the skin is a window to your general health, it makes sense that you may see skin manifestations that reflect your immune system response to your HBV infection as it cycles through various stages, phases and flares.

If you are living with HBV, you know the importance of monitoring your HBV status and your liver health.  Annual, bi-annual, or the schedule recommended to you by your liver specialist, will keep you on top of what is going on with your HBV and any associated liver disease.  However, it is good to take notice of any changes in the skin and nails as the liver is a non-complaining organ.  Sometimes we have to look for evidence that something is going on. That being said, I feel the need to rush to a mirror and check myself out after having researched and written this blog.  The skin may be a window to our general health, but it is not always easy to figure out what it’s trying to tell us. If you have any questions, don’t try to self-diagnose. Talk to your doctor and bring any of your concerns to his attention.