What are Autoimmune Diseases?
An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them.
Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body — like your joints or skin — as foreign. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.
Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ. Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like lupus, affect the whole body.
Examples of autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis. The immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis causes gradually causes permanent joint damage. Treatments for rheumatoid arthritis can include various oral or injectable medications that reduce immune system over activity.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys are commonly affected in lupus. Treatment often requires daily oral prednisone, a steroid that reduces immune system function.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two major forms of IBD. Oral and injected immune-suppressing medicines can treat IBD.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasms. Various medicines that suppress the immune system can be used to treat multiple sclerosis.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus. Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. By young adulthood, people with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to survive.
How common are Autoimmune Diseases?
Women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of men (1). Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 14 to 44).
Some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.
Please discuss with your doctor for further information.
What are the symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases?
The common symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases are:
- Achy muscles
- Swelling and redness
- Low-grade fever
- Trouble concentrating
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Hair loss
- Skin rashes
Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. For example, type 1 diabetes causes extreme thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD causes belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or RA, symptoms come and go. Periods of symptoms are called flare-ups. Periods when the symptoms go away are called remissions.
There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.
When should I see my doctor?
If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.
What causes Autoimmune Diseases?
Doctors don’t know what causes the immune system misfire. Yet some people are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others.
Certain autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every family member will necessarily have the same disease, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.
Because the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, researchers suspect environmental factors like infections and exposures to chemicals or solvents might also be involved.
A “Western” diet is another suspected trigger. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed foods is linked to inflammation, which might set off an immune response. However, this hasn’t been proven.
Another theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. Because of vaccines and antiseptics, children today aren’t exposed to as many germs as they were in the past. The lack of exposure could make their immune system overreact to harmless substances.
What increases my risk for Autoimmune Diseases?
There are many risk factors for Autoimmune Diseases, such as:
- Female gender
- Young to middle-age
- African American, American Indian, or Latino ethnicity
- Family history of autoimmune disorders
- Exposure to environmental agents
- Previous infection
Diagnosis & treatment
The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.
How are Autoimmune Diseases diagnosed?
No single test can diagnose most autoimmune diseases. Your doctor will use a combination of tests and an assessment of your symptoms to diagnose you.
The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is often the first test that doctors use when symptoms suggest an autoimmune disease. A positive test means you likely have one of these diseases, but it won’t confirm exactly which one you have.
Other tests look for specific autoantibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases. Your doctor might also do tests to check for the inflammation these diseases produce in the body.
How is Autoimmune Diseases treated?
Treatments can’t cure autoimmune diseases, but they can control the overactive immune response and bring down inflammation. Drugs used to treat these conditions include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Naprosyn)
- Immune-suppressing drugs
Treatments are also available to relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes.
Lifestyle changes & home remedies
What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage Autoimmune Diseases?
The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with Autoimmune Diseases:
- Eat a well-balanced diet
- Exercise regularly
If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
What Are Autoimmune Disorders? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/autoimmune-diseases. Accessed August 8, 2018.
Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes and More. https://www.healthline.com/health/autoimmune-disorders#causes. Accessed August 8, 2018.
Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disorders. https://www.everydayhealth.com/autoimmune-disorders/autoimmune-risk-factors.aspx. Accessed August 8, 2018.
Review Date: August 24, 2018 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019