Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system misfires and the body actually starts attacking itself.
The function of your body's immune system is to protect you against disease and infection. In a healthy person, the immune system will recognize infectious organisms like bacteria and viruses as foreign invaders and attack them. But in some people, the immune system doesn't function correctly, and it mistakenly misidentifies healthy tissues as being foreign, and attacks them as well. This can lead to a variety of conditions, known as autoimmune diseases, which can affect different areas of your body.
Facts About Autoimmune Diseases
It's estimated that 5 to 8 percent of people in the United States are living with an autoimmune disease. And researchers aren't sure why, but the prevalence of autoimmune diseases seem to be increasing.
Autoimmune diseases can affect anyone, but women of childbearing age are most likely to develop them. Women of African-American, Native American, and Hispanic descent are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases than Caucasian women. Genetics also play a big role in who gets autoimmune diseases, so if you have a family history of them, you are at increased risk.
Common Autoimmune Diseases
There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases, but some of the most common ones are:
- Graves' disease. Graves disease is a type of autoimmunity in which the thyroid gland becomes overly active. People who have Graves' disease may have trouble sleeping, irritability, unexplained weight loss, eyes that bulge, sensitivity to heat, muscle weakness, brittle hair, light menstrual periods, and hand shakiness. On the other hand, some people with Graves' disease experience no symptoms at all. A radioactive iodine pill, which destroys overactive thyroid cells, is used to treat Graves disease and cures the condition in about 90 percent of patients in just one dose. Ten percent of patients require a second dose, and only a small percentage of those need to have the overactive thyroid surgically removed.
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis. An inflammation of the thyroid gland that results in hypothyroidism (that is, an underactive thyroid gland), Hashimoto's thyroiditis occurs when the immune system attacks the thyroid gland. Although there are sometimes no symptoms, Hashimoto's thyroiditis often results in a goiter (enlargement of the thyroid gland, which may be visible as a bulge in the neck), fatigue, weight gain, depression, muscle weakness, cold sensitivity, dry hair and skin, and constipation. There is currently no treatment aimed specifically at Hashimotos thyroiditis, but hypothyroidism and goiter, if present, can both be treated with hormone replacement therapy to give the body the thyroid hormone that it needs.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). In lupus, antibodies made by the immune system attack the body, resulting in swelling and damaged joints and organs, joint pain, rashes, and sun sensitivity. Lupus treatments vary depending on how severe your disease is, but can include pain relievers, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), immunosuppressants, corticosteroids, and lifestyle changes like reducing stress, avoiding sun exposure, using sunscreen, and making changes to your diet.
- Type 1 diabetes. In type 1 diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in childhood or early adulthood (by age 30), the immune system attacks cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. When your insulin levels are insufficient, your body cannot control your glucose level, which can lead to a number of problems, including kidney failure, vision loss, circulation problems, stroke, and heart disease. Treatment for type 1 diabetes includes taking insulin as directed by a doctor, monitoring blood sugar, eating a healthy diet, and staying active.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). People who have MS may experience weakness, trouble with balance and coordination, problems speaking and walking, paralysis, tremors, and numbness in the extremities. There are a variety of medications that can help patients manage symptoms, treat flare-ups, modify the course of the MS, and improve function.
- Rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is a type of arthritis in which autoimmunity causes the immune system to attack tissues in the joints, leading to muscle pain, joint deformities, fatigue, weakness, appetite loss, weight loss, and sometimes confinement to bed. As with most autoimmune diseases, women are more likely than men to develop rheumatoid arthritis. However, unlike most other autoimmune diseases, the age of onset is usually between 30 and 50. Rheumatoid arthritis acts differently in different people; therefore, treatment options are custom-tailored to the patient and are designed to relieve pain, decrease inflammation, slow down or stop damage to the joints, and improve overall functioning.
If you have an autoimmune disease, you and your doctor will work out a plan to manage it. Symptoms of autoimmune diseases often come and go, and they may flare up from time to time, which means the symptoms may come on suddenly, requiring immediate medical attention.
There is currently no cure for most autoimmune diseases, but researchers are looking for new ways to treat them. Medications can help manage symptoms and, in some cases, may even help slow the progress of the disease. Additionally, lifestyle changes, such as a healthful diet, regular exercise, rest, and stress management may be incorporated into an autoimmune disease treatment plan.