Autoimmune Disease

Written by Julie Roddick
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune disease affects up to 50 million Americans, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). An autoimmune disease develops when your immune system, which defends your body against disease, decides your healthy cells are foreign. As a result, your immune system attacks healthy body cells. Depending on the type, an autoimmune disease can affect one or many different types of body tissue. It can also cause abnormal organ growth and changes in organ function.

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There are as many as 80 types of autoimmune diseases. Many of them have similar symptoms, which makes them very difficult to diagnose. It is also possible to have more than one at the same time. They usually fluctuate between periods of remission (little/no symptoms) and flare-ups (worsening symptoms). There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, so treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms.

Autoimmune diseases often run in families, and 75 percent of those affected are women (AARDA). African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans also have an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

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What Are Some of the Most Common Autoimmune Diseases?

The following are some of the more common autoimmune diseases:

  • rheumatoid arthritis—inflammation of joints and surrounding tissues
  • systemic lupus erythematosus—affects skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs
  • multiple sclerosis—affects the brain and spinal cord
  • celiac sprue disease—a reaction to gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine
  • pernicious anemia—decrease in red blood cells caused by inability to absorb vitamin B12
  • vitiligo—white patches on the skin caused by loss of pigment
  • scleroderma—a connective tissue disease that causes changes in skin, blood vessels, muscles, and internal organs
  • psoriasis—a skin condition that causes redness and irritation as well as thick, flaky, silver-white patches
  • inflammatory bowel disease—a group of inflammatory diseases of the colon and small intestine
  • Hashimoto’s disease—inflammation of the thyroid gland
  • Addison’s disease—adrenal hormone insufficiency
  • Graves’ disease—overactive thyroid gland
  • reactive arthritis—inflammation of joints, urethra, and eyes; may cause sores on the skin and mucus membranes
  • Sjögren’s syndrome—destroys the glands that produce tears and saliva causing dry eyes and mouth; may affect kidneys and lungs
  • Type 1 diabetes—destruction of insulin producing cells in the pancreas

What Causes the Immune System to Attack Healthy Body Cells?

The cause of autoimmune disease is unknown. If you have a family member with an autoimmune disease, you may be more susceptible to developing one. There are many theories about what triggers autoimmune diseases, including

  • bacteria or virus
  • drugs
  • chemical irritants
  • environmental irritants

What Are the Symptoms of an Autoimmune Disease?

Because there are so many different types of autoimmune disease, the symptoms vary. However, most of them cause fatigue, fever, and general malaise (feeling ill). Symptoms worsen during flare-ups and lessen during remission.

Autoimmune diseases affect many parts of the body. The most common organs and tissue affected are:

  • joints
  • muscles
  • skin
  • red blood cells
  • blood vessels
  • connective tissue
  • endocrine glands

How Are Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosed?

Ordinarily, your immune system produces antibodies (proteins that recognize and destroy specific substances) against harmful invaders in your body, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. When you have an autoimmune disease, your body produces antibodies against some of your own tissues. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease involves identifying the antibodies your body is producing.

The following tests are used to diagnose an autoimmune disease:

  • antinuclear antibody tests—a type of autoantibody test that looks for antinuclear antibodies, which attack the nuclei of cells in your body
  • autoantibody tests—any of several tests that look for specific antibodies to your own tissues
  • complete blood count (CBC)—measures the numbers of red and white cells in your blood. When your immune system is actively fighting something, these numbers will vary from the norm
  • C-reactive protein (CRP)—elevated CRP is an indication of inflammation throughout your body
  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)—this test indirectly measures how much inflammation is in your body

How Are Autoimmune Diseases Treated?

Autoimmune diseases are chronic conditions with no cure. Treatment involves attempts to control the process of the disease and to decrease the symptoms, especially during flare-ups. The following is a list of things you might do to alleviate the symptoms of an autoimmune disease:

  • eat a balanced and healthy diet
  • exercise regularly
  • get plenty of rest
  • take vitamin supplements
  • take hormone replacement, if necessary
  • get blood transfusions, if blood is affected
  • take anti-inflammatory medication, if joints are affected
  • take pain medication
  • take immunosuppressive medication
  • get physical therapy
  • decrease stress
  • limit sun exposure
  • avoid any known triggers of flare-ups

The following alternative therapies have also been helpful:

  • herbs
  • chiropractic
  • acupuncture
  • hypnosis
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