"Neonatal hepatitis" is a general term used to denote injury to the liver that occurs shortly after birth. Neonatal hepatitis may be caused by viruses, metabolic disease or genetic disorders, as well as other rare diseases that affect or impair the function of the liver. In some children, the cause of liver injury is unknown - these cases are referred to as idiopathic neonatal hepatitis (INH). The symptoms of idiopathic neonatal hepatitis may vary greatly from one individual to another. Symptoms common to liver disease often occur including yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice), enlargement of the liver (hepatomegaly) and unusually dark urine. Most individuals with idiopathic neonatal hepatitis fully recover from the condition; however, some will progress to chronic liver disease.
The liver is located on the right side of the abdominal cavity just under the rib cage. The liver has many different functions including filtering harmful substances (toxins) out of the bloodstream, synthesizing proteins, storing essential vitamins, helping to breakdown (metabolize) food to use as energy, creating enzymes that help the blood form clots in response to injury, and producing bile, a liquid that plays an essential role in breaking down fats in the small intestine.
In many cases, the first sign of liver disease is yellowing of the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice). Some infants with idiopathic neonatal hepatitis may also have an enlarged liver (hepatomegaly). Additional signs that may occur include unusually dark urine and pale or clay-colored (acholic) stools.
The disorder can range from a mild, temporary (transient) disease that improves without treatment to more serious forms that cause additional complications. The common symptoms of liver disease may appear anytime during the first few weeks of life. By the age of 2 to 3 months, it becomes clear that an infant with neonatal hepatitis is not gaining weight and is growing at a slower than normal rate (failure to thrive). The infant may be irritable because of excessively itchy skin (pruritus). Other symptoms may include enlargement of the spleen (splenomegaly) and/or the accumulation of body fluids within the abdomen (ascites).
In more serious forms of neonatal hepatitis additional symptoms can occur including easy bruising, prolonged bleeding, and infection of the blood (sepsis). Liver (hepatic) failure may eventually develop in some individuals with severe forms of neonatal hepatitis.
Neonatal hepatitis, in general, has many different causes including several viruses including cytomegalovirus and the herpes viruses; various metabolic liver diseases or genetic disorders such as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency; rare disorders may also impair the function of the liver (cholestatic disorders).
By definition, the cause of idiopathic neonatal hepatitis is not known. Most cases are believed to occur randomly (sporadically). Idiopathic neonatal hepatitis is responsible for 10-25 % of infants with neonatal cholestasis – a common condition of newborns in which the flow of bile from the liver is reduced or blocked, resulting in jaundice.
According to the medical literature, 15-20 percent of cases of idiopathic neonatal hepatitis run in families (familial form) suggesting that genetic factors play a role in its development.
The incidence of idiopathic neonatal hepatitis in the general population is unknown. The proportion of cases classified as “idiopathic” has diminished as advanced diagnostic techniques and a better molecular understanding of cholestatic diseases in general have allowed physicians to diagnosis many infants with specific syndromes. In the past, these infants would have been included as having idiopathic neonatal hepatitis.
The key is early recognition of neonatal jaundice – this allows the timely initiation of a diagnostic evaluation, the goals of which are to identify treatable disorders. Therefore any infant jaundiced beyond 14 days of life should have blood test done to determine if the jaundice is due to cholestasis (elevated conjugated bilirubin levels) or is associated with elevated unconjugated bilirubin levels.
Idiopathic neonatal hepatitis is a diagnosis attained by excluding other conditions. Tests may be conducted to rule out viral as well as metabolic diseases and other genetic causes of liver disease. Blood tests may reveal elevated levels of conjugated bilirubin in the blood (hyperbilirubinemia) and decreased levels of certain vitamins because of the failure to the body to proper breakdown food.
The structure of the liver and the surrounding ducts and blood vessels can be examined by ultrasonography. In some cases, a liver biopsy may be necessary. During a biopsy, a needle and syringe are used to remove a small piece of liver tissue. This sample is studied under a microscope. A liver biopsy may be able to rule out other liver disorders such as those that affect the inside of the liver (intrahepatic disorders).
Careful attention to nutritional needs and diet are essential for infants with this disorder. Special supplements (i.e., fat-soluble vitamins), formulas, and/or dietary restrictions may be suggested by the physician. Special infant formulas may be prescribed, for example, malabsorption of long-chain triglycerides may be corrected with formulas that contain medium-chain triglycerides.
There is no specific treatment available for infants with idiopathic neonatal hepatitis. Treatment is directed toward the specific symptoms that are apparent in each individual.
If itching (pruritus) becomes a problem, a drug that has been used to treat itching associated with liver disease is ursodeoxycholic acid.
A surgical choice of last resort for infants who develop end-stage liver disease is a liver transplantation.
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Contact for additional information about idiopathic neonatal hepatitis:
William F. Balistreri, M.D.
Director, Pediatric Liver Care Center
Division of Pediatric Gastroenterology,
Hepatology, and Nutrition
Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center
3333 Burnet Avenue
Cincinnati, Ohio 45229-3039
Suchy F, Sokol R, Balistreri WF, eds. Liver Disease in Children, 4th Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Behrman RE, Kliegman RM, Jenson HB. Eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th Edition. Elsevier Saunders. Philadelphia, PA; 2011.
Patrinos ME, Harrigan R. Idiopathic Neonatal Hepatitis. NORD Guide to Rare Disorders. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Philadelphia, PA. 2003:288.
Balistreri WF, Bezerra JA. Whatever happened to neonatal hepatitis? Clin Liver Dis. 2006;10:27-53.
The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. Neonatal Cholestasis. February 2012. Available at: http://www.merck.com/mmpe/sec19/ch275/ch275f.html Accessed Dec 30, 2013.