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 systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), affect the whole body.
Immune system disorders cause abnormally low activity or over activity of the immune system. In cases of immune system over activity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues (autoimmune diseases). Immune deficiency diseases decrease the body’s ability to fight invaders, causing vulnerability to infections.
Doctors don’t know exactly what causes the immune-system misfire. Yet some people are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others.
According to a 2014 study, 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. Often the disease starts during a woman’s childbearing years (ages 15 to 44).
Some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus affects more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.
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 exposure to chemicals or solvents might also be involved.
A “Western diet” is another suspected risk factor for developing an autoimmune disease. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed foods is thought to be linked to inflammation, which might set off an immune response. However, this hasn’t been proven.
A 2015 study focused on another theory 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 prone to overreact to harmless substances.
One of the functions of the immune system is to protect the body by responding to invading microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria, by producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes (types of white blood cells). Under normal conditions, an immune response cannot be triggered against the cells of one’s own body. In some cases, however, immune cells make a mistake and attack the very cells that they are meant to protect. This can lead to a variety of autoimmune diseases. They encompass a broad category of related diseases in which the person’s immune system attacks his or her own tissue.
Type 1 diabetes
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In type 1 diabetes mellitus, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
High blood sugar results can lead to damage in the blood vessels, as well as organs like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.
2. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the immune system attacks the joints. This attack causes redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints.
Unlike osteoarthritis, which commonly affects people as they get older, RA can start as early as your 30s or sooner.
3. Psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis
Skin cells normally grow and then shed when they’re no longer needed. Psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. The extra cells build up and form inflamed red patches, commonly with silver-white scales of plaque on the skin.
Up to 30 percent of people with psoriasis also develop swelling, stiffness, and pain in their joints. This form of the disease is called psoriatic arthritis.
4. Multiple sclerosis
Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells, in your central nervous system. Damage to the myelin sheath slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body.
This damage can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms that progress at different rates. According to a 2012 study, about 50 percent of people with MS need help walking within 15 years after the disease starts.
5. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Although doctors in the 1800s first described lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it commonly produces, the systemic form, which is most the common, actually affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain, and heart.
Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most common symptoms.
6. Inflammatory bowel disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the GI tract.
Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
Ulcerative colitisaffects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.
7. Addison’s disease
Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone as well as androgen hormones. Having too little of cortisol can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar (glucose). Deficiency of aldosterone will lead to sodium loss and excess potassium in the bloodstream.
Symptoms include weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar.
8. Graves’ disease
Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce too much of its hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, known as metabolism.
Having too much of these hormones revs up your body’s activities, causing symptoms like nervousness, a fast heartbeat, heat intolerance, and weight loss.
One potential symptom of this disease is bulging eyes, called exophthalmos. It can occur as a part of what is called Graves’ ophthalmopathy, which occurs in around 30 percent of those who have Graves’ disease, according to a 1993 study.
9. Sjögren’s syndrome
This condition attacks the glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. The hallmark symptoms of Sjögren’s syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it may also affect the joints or skin.
10. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, thyroid hormone production slows to a deficiency. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goiter).
11. Myasthenia gravis
Myasthenia gravis affects nerve impulses that help the brain control the muscles. When the communication from nerves to muscles is impaired, signals can’t direct the muscles to contract.
The most common symptom is muscle weakness that gets worse with activity and improves with rest. Often muscles that control eye movements, eyelid opening, swallowing, and facial movements are involved.
12. Autoimmune vasculitis
Autoimmune vasculitis happens when the immune system attacks blood vessels. The inflammation that results narrows the arteries and veins, allowing less blood to flow through them.
13. Pernicious anemia
This condition causes deficiency of a protein, made by stomach lining cells, known as intrinsic factor that is needed in order for the small intestine to absorb vitamin B-12 from food. Without enough of this vitamin, one will develop an anemia, and the body’s ability for proper DNA synthesis will be altered.
Pernicious anemia is more common in older adults. According to a 2012 study, it affects 0.1 percent of people in general, but nearly 2 percent of people over age 60.
14. Celiac disease
People with celiac disease can’t eat foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the small intestine, the immune system attacks this part of the gastrointestinal tract and causes inflammation.
A 2015 study noted that celiac disease affects about 1 percent of people in the United States. A larger number of people have reported gluten sensitivity, which isn’t an autoimmune disease, but can have similar symptoms like diarrhea and abdominal pain.
https://www.aarda.org/diseaselist/ – other types
The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, such as:
swelling and redness
numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
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 may come and go. A period of symptoms is called a flare-up. A period when the symptoms go away is called remission.
When to see a doctor
See a doctor if you have symptoms of an autoimmune disease. You might need to visit a specialist, depending on the type of disease you have.
Rheumatologists treat joint diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis as well as other autoimmune diseases like Sjögren’s syndrome and SLE.
Gastroenterologists treat diseases of the GI tract, such as celiac and Crohn’s disease.
Endocrinologists treat conditions of the glands, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Addison’s disease.
Dermatologists treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis.
Treatments can’t cure autoimmune diseases, but they can control the overactive immune response and bring down inflammation or at least reduce pain and inflammation. Drugs used to treat these conditions include:
nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Naprosyn)
Treatments are also available to relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes.
Eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise may also help you feel better.
Autoimmune Disease Risk Factors
Researchers don’t know what causes autoimmune disease, but several theories point to an overactive immune system attacking the body after an infection or injury. We do know that certain risk factors increase the chances of developing autoimmune disorders, including:
Genetics: Certain disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS) tend to run in families. “Having a relative with an autoimmune disease increases your risk, but it doesn’t mean you will develop a disease for certain,” says Orbai.
Weight: Being overweight or obese raises your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis. This could be because more weight puts greater stress on the joints or because fat tissue makes substances that encourage inflammation.
Smoking: Research has linked smoking to a number of autoimmune diseases, including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism, and MS.
Certain medications: “Certain blood pressure medications or antibiotics can trigger drug-induced lupus, which is often a more benign form of lupus,” Orbai says. “Our myositis center also discovered that specific medications used to lower cholesterol, called statins, can trigger statin-induced myopathy.” Myopathy is a rare autoimmune disease that causes muscle weakness. Before starting or stopping any medications, however, make sure to talk to your doctor.
Autoimmune Disease and Your Health
Having lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis raises your risk for heart disease. While taking steps to reduce heart disease is always a good idea, it is even more essential if you have one of these conditions. Talk to your doctor about what you can do to keep your heart healthy and strong. For example, keeping your blood pressure and cholesterol levels within healthy ranges, eating a nutritious diet and exercising regularly can be lifesaving.
These steps can also help reduce the symptoms of autoimmune disease. Orbai admits that making time for healthy living can be hard, given women’s fast-paced lives, but she insists that finding the balance is key to living with autoimmune disease.
“It’s something that’s going to involve commitment, and sometimes it’s going to be tough,” she says. “But learning to listen to your body and being smart about what triggers your disease is important. It’s something you do for yourself.”