Autoimmune Diseases

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What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakes its own healthy cells for harmful foreign ones and attacks them. This can result in destruction of healthy tissues, changes in the way organs normally function, and abnormal growth of organs. Autoimmune diseases are extremely common. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases affecting between 14.7 and 23.5 million people in the United States, and autoimmune disorders are becoming more prevalent every year (Source: NIH).

Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any type of tissue, structure, function or system of the body, including the skin, joints, brain, glands, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive tract.

Some of the more commonly known autoimmune diseases include the following:

  • Addison's disease is a condition in which the adrenal glands are damaged and unable to make certain hormones, including stress hormones and hormones required for normal sexual development.

  • Autoimmune hepatitis is a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy liver cells.

  • Celiac disease is a severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage.

  • Chronic Lyme disease is an inflammatory bacterial disease spread by ticks that can lead to an autoimmune response in the body.

  • Graves’ disease is a type of hyperthyroidism in which the thyroid gland makes an excessive amount of thyroid hormone.

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nervous system.

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a type of hypothyroidism in which the thyroid gland does not make a sufficient amount of thyroid hormone.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease is a group of disorders that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

  • Multiple sclerosis is a disease process in the brain and spinal cord that causes weakness, coordination and balance difficulties, and other problems.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane lining the joints, leading to widespread inflammation.

  • Sjogren’s syndrome is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks moisture-producing glands of the body.

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly known as lupus, is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells and tissues, including the joints.

  • Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the pancreas produces too little or no insulin, so the body cannot properly process sugar.

Anyone can develop an autoimmune disease including infants, children, adolescents, and adults of all ages, in any geographic area or ethnicity and at any socioeconomic level. In addition, one person can have multiple autoimmune diseases at a time, such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune hepatitis. In fact, you are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease if you had an autoimmune disease in the past.

Autoimmune diseases tend to occur much more frequently in women. For example, more than 85 percent of people with certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, thyroiditis, and Sjogren’s syndrome, are women, according to the National Institutes of Health (Source: NIH). 

Most autoimmune diseases are not preventable or curable. They are often inherited or develop due to unforeseeable environmental factors. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications and improve the quality of life of affected individuals.

In some cases, autoimmune diseases can cause serious and even life-threatening symptoms or complications. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce or prevent complications. Seek prompt medical care if you have unexplained symptoms, such as ongoing fatigue, vomiting, weight gain, lightheadedness, fever, or any other symptoms that concern you.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have chest pain or palpitations, difficulty breathing, a lack of urination, severe pain, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), confusion, an unexplained change in consciousness or alertness, or unusual and persistent bleeding.


What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

Symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary widely depending on the type of disease and the individual case. Some autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, may have no noticeable symptoms or vague symptoms early in the disease process.

Symptoms of other autoimmune diseases can greatly impact peoples’ lives. For example, multiple sclerosis can cause paralysis and loss of eyesight, and systemic lupus erythematosus can cause seizures, hallucinations, and liver damage.

Some autoimmune diseases can cause symptoms in acute stages, called attacks or flares, which may last anywhere from days to weeks. Flares can occur days, months or even years apart. Other autoimmune symptoms can become chronic.

Vague symptoms that occur frequently with many autoimmune diseases include:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition

In some cases, autoimmune diseases can become life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these symptoms:

  • Bleeding symptoms, such as bleeding during pregnancy; large amount of blood in the urine; severe, persistent rectal bleeding; grossly bloody stool; or vomiting blood.

  • Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness

  • Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations or delusions

  • Chest pain, discomfort, or palpitations

  • Debilitating dizziness

  • High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)

  • Not urinating

  • Respiratory or breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, wheezing, not breathing, or choking

  • Seizure

  • Severe pain

  • Thinking or talking about wanting to hurt or kill oneself or another person

  • Wet, loose cough that produces yellow, green, or white phlegm

  • Yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice)


What causes autoimmune diseases?

A normal, healthy immune system identifies potentially harmful foreign substances in your body, such as viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. It then attempts to eliminate them with antibodies. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes the body’s own healthy cells and tissues for harmful substances and attacks them with antibodies known as autoantibodies. This can result in destruction of healthy tissues, changes in the way organs normally function, abnormal growth of organs, and organ failure.

The medical community does not definitively know what causes the immune system to misidentify and attack its own cells and tissues. Scientists and researchers are exploring thousands of environmental and genetic influences that may make people more likely to develop an autoimmune disease. Some specific influences being researched include medications, other medical conditions, bacteria, and viruses.

So, how does it all work? Immunity is like a jigsaw puzzle. When healthy immune cells encounter a foreign substance, like a drug molecule or small portions of a virus or bacterium, they create antibodies to neutralize the target molecule. Antibodies are like puzzle pieces looking for a matching connection – a satisfactory match ignites the powerful immune system to destroy the foreign substance. After the ‘threat’ is over there remain millions of circulating antibodies. If they encounter any healthy cells that harbor molecules resembling the foreign molecules they, too, will be attacked. These cells can reside within any organ of the body. That’s why autoimmune diseases are so pervasive.

What are the risk factors for autoimmune diseases?

In most cases, the underlying cause of a particular autoimmune disease is not known. However, careful documentation of autoimmune diseases and the affected individuals’ medical histories has identified certain risk factors for autoimmune diseases including:

  • Female gender

  • Personal or family history of an autoimmune disease


How are autoimmune diseases treated?

Most autoimmune diseases are not preventable or curable. They are often linked to genetic factors or develop due to unknown environmental factors, such as medications or prior viral infections. However, prompt treatment of autoimmune diseases can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications in people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Treatment plans vary depending on the type and stage of the autoimmune disease, the severity of the disease, a person’s age and medical history, and other factors. They often include the use of medications to:

  • Relieve or lessen symptoms

  • Replace substances the body can no longer make by itself. For example, insulin is prescribed for type 1 diabetes to regulate blood sugar. Likewise, oral thyroid hormone replacements are prescribed for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

  • Suppress the immune system and reduce its destruction of tissues

Treatment plans may also include various types of therapy or treatments, which vary depending on the organs and systems affected and other factors. Examples include:

  • Acupuncture to help relieve pain

  • Avoiding sun and UV exposure to reduce the likelihood of developing skin rashes, which can occur with certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus

  • Blood transfusions to treat autoimmune disorders of the blood, such as autoimmune hemolytic anemia

  • Meditation and biofeedback to help relieve stress and pain

  • Physical therapy

  • Regular medical and dental care

  • Surgery

  • Vitamin therapy

What are the possible complications of autoimmune diseases?

Complications of autoimmune diseases can be serious and life threatening. Complications vary widely depending on the type of autoimmune disease and the individual case. You can minimize the risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of autoimmune diseases can include:

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Oct 31
  1. Autoimmune Disease in Women. American Autoimmune Related diseases Association, Inc.
  2. Autoimmune Diseases in Women.
  3. Autoimmune Disorders. Lab Tests Online.
  4. Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research. National Institutes of Health Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee.
  5. Women and Autoimmune Diseases. DeLisa Fairweather and Noel R. Rose.
  6. Grateau G, Duruöz MT. Autoinflammatory conditions: when to suspect? How to treat? Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol 2010; 24:401.
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