Autoimmune diseases affect 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 cells. An autoimmune disease can affect one or many different types of body tissue, depending on the type. It can also cause abnormal organ growth and changes in organ function.
There are as many as 80 types of autoimmune diseases. Many of them have similar symptoms, which makes them very difficult to diagnose. It’s also possible to have more than one at the same time. Autoimmune diseases usually fluctuate between periods of remission (few or no symptoms) and flare-ups (worsening symptoms). Currently, treatment for autoimmune diseases focuses on relieving symptoms and preventing complications because there is no curative therapy.
Autoimmune diseases often run in families, and 75 percent of those affected are women, according to AARDA. African-Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans also have an increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
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
- celiac disease (sprue): a reaction to gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley) that causes damage to the lining of the small intestine
- pernicious anemia: a decrease in red blood cell count caused by an inability to absorb vitamin B-12
- 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 diseases: 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 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
The cause of autoimmune disease is unknown. There are many theories about what triggers autoimmune diseases, including:
- bacteria or virus
- chemical irritants
- environmental irritants
Also, you may be more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease if you have a family member with one.
Because there are so many different types of autoimmune disease, the symptoms vary. However, common symptoms are fatigue, fever, inflammation, and general malaise (feeling ill). Symptoms worsen during flare-ups and relent during remission.
Autoimmune diseases affect many parts of the body. The most common organs and tissue affected are:
- red blood cells
- blood vessels
- connective tissue
- endocrine glands
Ordinarily, your immune system produces antibodies (proteins that recognize and destroy specific substances) against harmful invaders in your body. These invaders include:
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:
- Autoantibody tests: These are any of several tests that look for specific antibodies to your own tissues.
- Antinuclear antibody tests: This is a type of autoantibody test that looks for antinuclear antibodies, which attack the nuclei of cells in your body.
- Complete blood count: This test 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 normal.
- C-reactive protein (CRP): Elevated CRP is an indication of inflammation throughout your body.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate: This test indirectly measures how much inflammation is in your body.
Autoimmune diseases are chronic conditions with no cure. Treatment involves attempting to control the process of the disease and relieving the symptoms, especially during flare-ups.
Medical interventions include:
- immunosuppressive medication
- hormone replacement therapy, if necessary
- blood transfusions, if blood is affected
- anti-inflammatory medication, if joints are affected
- pain medication
- physical therapy
The following alternative therapies have provided relief for some people:
- herbal medications
While autoimmune diseases don’t have a cure, there are steps you can take to reduce symptoms and avoid triggers. These steps include: