Imagine that your body is a castle and your immune system is your army fighting off invaders like bacteria. If your army malfunctions and attacks the castle, you may have lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and/or psoriasis, among a hundred other autoimmune diseases. You may experience pain, fatigue, dizziness, rashes, depression and many more symptoms.
Your immune system is made up of organs and cells meant to protect your body from bacteria, parasites, viruses and cancer cells. An autoimmune disease is the result of the immune system accidentally attacking your body instead of protecting it. It's unclear why your immune system does this.
There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases. Common ones include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
Autoimmune diseases can affect many types of tissues and nearly any organ in your body. They may cause a variety of symptoms including pain, tiredness (fatigue), rashes, nausea, headaches, dizziness and more. Specific symptoms depend on the exact disease.
How do autoimmune diseases work?
Experts don’t know why your immune system turns on you. It’s like it can no longer tell the difference between what’s healthy and what’s not — between what’s you and what’s an invader. There are some theories about why this happens, but experts aren’t completely sure.
What’s a list of autoimmune diseases?
Some common autoimmune diseases include:
Diseases of the joints and muscles:
• Systemic lupus erythematosus (Lupus, SLE)
Diseases of the digestive tract:
Diseases of the endocrine system:
Diseases of the skin:
Diseases of the nervous system:
• Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)
• Autoimmune vasculitis
How common are autoimmune diseases?
Many autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men. The diseases are common — 1 in 15 people in the U.S. have an autoimmune disease. One million people in the US have lupus and 1.4 million have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
Are autoimmune diseases genetic?
Yes. Some autoimmune diseases run in families.
Are autoimmune diseases contagious?
Are autoimmune diseases fatal?
Autoimmune diseases are one of the top 10 causes of death in women in all age groups (up to age 64).
How do autoimmune diseases affect you if you're trying to get pregnant?
Some autoimmune diseases can affect your ability to get pregnant and some have adverse effects on pregnancy. You may need fertility treatments to get pregnant. You might also want to wait until your disease is in the remission stage to try to conceive.
There is a higher risk for stillbirth or preterm birth if you have lupus. If you have myasthenia gravis, you may experience trouble breathing.
SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES
What causes autoimmune diseases?
The precise cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown. However, there are risk factors that may increase your chances of getting an autoimmune disease. Risk factors include:
Some medications:Talk to your healthcare provider about the side effects of medications for blood pressure, statins and antibiotics.
Having relatives with autoimmune diseases. Some diseases are genetic; they run in families.
Already having one autoimmune disease. You’re at a higher risk of developing another.
Exposure to toxins
Being female. 78% of people with an autoimmune disease are women.
There can be many symptoms and your physician will discuss the ones that you shoud be aware of.
How long do autoimmune diseases last?
It varies. Some are easily treated and some are not. Some autoimmune diseases can last a lifetime.
DIAGNOSIS AND TESTS
How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?
Diagnosing an autoimmune disease usually takes healthcare providers longer than it does to diagnose other diseases. This is because many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms with each other and with other diseases. You can help your healthcare provider with the diagnosing process by bringing the following to your appointment:
• A detailed list of any symptoms and how long you’ve had them.
• A record of your family’s health history. Note if anyone in your family has an autoimmune disease.
In addition to interviewing you about your symptoms, your healthcare provider may do some blood tests to check for autoimmune diseases, including:
• Antinuclear antibody test (ANA).
• Complete blood count (CBC).
• Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).
Which healthcare providers diagnose autoimmune diseases?
If your primary healthcare provider can’t diagnose you, you may have to see a specialist such as a gastroenterologist or a rheumatologist.
MANAGEMENT AND TREATMENT
How are autoimmune diseases treated?
There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, but symptoms can be managed. Everyone’s immune system, genetics and environment are different. That means that your treatment must be unique.
Some examples of medications used to treat autoimmune diseases include:
• Medications for depression and anxiety
• Insulin injections
• Sleeping medications
• Plasma exchanges
• Rash creams and pills
• Intravenous immune globulin
• Drugs that suppress (subdue) your immune system
Some people try complementary (alternative) medicines and procedures. Examples include:
• Chiropractic procedures
Always check with your physician before starting.
What questions should I ask my healthcare provider about autoimmune diseases?
It’s helpful to have some questions ready to ask before you see your provider. Examples to consider include:
• Do I have an autoimmune disease?
• What tests should I go through?
• What type of autoimmune disease do I have?
• Do I need to see a specialist?
• What specialist should I see?
• What’s the best treatment for me?
To Your Good Health,