A healthy immune system protects the body from infectious diseases. It identifies viruses, bacteria, parasites and other dangers and acts quickly to try to neutralize them. But when someone has an autoimmune disease, that same system may attack healthy organs, cells, and tissues.
Here are some basic facts about autoimmune diseases:
- More than 80 autoimmune disorders have been identified.
- Scientists don’t yet understand exactly what makes the immune system go wrong.
- Some autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.
- Many different parts of the body can be affected by autoimmune diseases.
- Symptoms may flare-up, then go away. Or they might grow progressively worse and spread from one part of the body to another.
- Women are more likely than men to develop many of these diseases.
- Symptoms for the same disease can be mild in one person and severe in another. And some autoimmune diseases can be fatal.
- They are not contagious
Some types of autoimmune problems are well-documented and fairly widespread, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Type I diabetes. Some are rare and little-known. Either way, they can have a wide variety of common symptoms and be very difficult to diagnose.
A look at few autoimmune diseases indicates the wide range of problems they cause:
- Antiphospholipid syndrome. This autoimmune disorder is characterized by formation of antibodies that attack certain phospholipid molecules, a type of fat found in cells. It can lead to blood clots and strokes. In pregnant women, it can cause stillbirths and miscarriages.
- Sjögren’s syndrome. This occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s moisture-producing glands. It leads to dry mouth and dry eyes, and sometimes to problems in the skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, and elsewhere.
- Polymyositis. The main symptom is muscle inflammation and weakening. It affects the muscles in your hips, thighs, shoulders, upper arms and neck and makes it hard to rise from a chair, climb stairs, or lift things.
- Mixed connective tissue disease. This presents overlapping features of lupus, scleroderma, polymyositis, and other autoimmune disorders. This rare disease can cause a wide range of symptoms that occur over a number of years, including numb or swollen fingers, muscle weakness, rash, and joint pain.
Diagnosis and treatment
The cause of autoimmune disease is unknown. Theories suggest that it’s due to an overactive immune system that gets triggered by an infection, injury, environmental condition, stress, or some other factor.
Diagnosis is difficult because many autoimmune diseases have some of the same symptoms and some symptoms are common to a wide range of illnesses and conditions, such as fatigue, joint pain, rashes, and abdominal pain.
Certain risk factors increase the chances of contracting autoimmune diseases:
- Genetics. Some disorders are known to run in families.
- Obesity, and simply being overweight, can lead to a higher risk of, for example, psoriatic or rheumatoid arthritis.
- Smoking is implicated in many autoimmune diseases.
- Medications. Various medications have been identified as possible triggers, including some blood pressure medicines, antibiotics, and statins used to lower cholesterol.
Treatment strategies and goals depend on the disease. One general aim is to reduce inflammation and pain, sometimes by suppressing the immune system. Typical methods are:
- NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen can reduce pain and swelling.
- Immunosuppressant drugs dampen immune responses, keeping further damage at bay. They may help relieve symptoms, but might also increase susceptibility to infection.
- Lifestyle changes. Many treatment plans include things like improving the diet, quitting smoking, avoiding triggers, and exercising.
Autoimmune Disease Specialists
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