The body is a complex network of specialized organs and tissues all working together. One such specialized system is the immune system. This system is designed to defend the body from germs and other foreign invaders that may cause a person to get sick. The core function of the immune system is to differentiate between “self” and “nonself” and get rid of what doesn’t belong. An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system fails to differentiate and begins to attack healthy body tissue by mistake.

WHAT IS AN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body defends itself against something seen as dangerous that is actually part of its own body. The immune system mistakes part of the body as a foreign element and sends antibodies to attack what are actually healthy cells. When these mistakes happen, the body ends up turning these antibodies against itself, damaging tissues and organs that are needed for the body to function properly. Some common diseases considered autoimmune include multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Graves' disease, and systemic lupus erythematosus. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease can be complicated and difficult to determine. They most often begin to develop during adulthood and women are more commonly affected by immune disorders than men are.

CAUSES

Doctors still don’t entirely understand what causes the immune system to go wrong. What they do understand, however, is some people are more likely to develop an autoimmune disorder than others. Researches have noticed certain patterns that may hold the key as to why this is. Some disorders are more commonly seen in specific ethnic groups. Lupus, for example, is more likely to be seen in African-American and Hispanic groups than in Caucasians. Diseases like multiple sclerosis tend to run in families. Every family member won't necessarily develop the same disease, but members of families where known members suffer some type of autoimmune disease are far more likely to inherit a susceptibility to develop one.

POTENTIAL TRIGGERS

Autoimmune virus

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Researchers suspect environmental triggers, such as infection or exposure to chemicals, might be contributing factors that explain an increase in reported incidences of autoimmune diseases. Another potential trigger is a “western” diet full of fatty, high-sugar, and processed foods that link to inflammation and might set off a misfired immune response. With the prevalence of vaccines and antiseptics, it’s thought children may suffer a lack of exposure to germs, resulting in their immune systems overacting to otherwise harmless invaders, creating the overcompensation seen in many autoimmune disorders. However, all of these potential causes and triggers are still theories and not yet proven.

TESTING FOR AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE

Two doctors studying about autoimmune disease with their microscopes

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Unfortunately, there is no single test to diagnose autoimmune diseases. Most doctors use a combination of tests to assess symptoms and diagnose whether or not an autoimmune disease may be the cause. Antinuclear antibody tests that come back positive may show a likelihood of an autoimmune disorder but it can’t confirm which one the person might have. Other tests look for specific antibodies linked to certain diseases to help determine what might be causing the patient problems. Doctors also often look for inflammation certain diseases produce in specific areas of the body, such as arthritis.

ARE AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES DANGEROUS?

blood sample from a autoimmune disease patient

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Symptoms vary depending on the disorder and the part of the body affected. Some autoimmune disorders affect specific tissues throughout the body such as blood vessels, cartilage, or the skin. Other autoimmune disorders affect particular organs and can affect virtually any organ, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain. The resulting inflammation and tissue damage can cause pain, jaundice, itching, difficulty breathing, deformed joints, weakness, accumulation of fluid, delirium, and even death.

Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ, much like how type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. But other diseases, like lupus, are more widespread and can attack the entire body. Because of the complexity of the immune system, autoimmune diseases vary in severity. The biggest problem presented by immune disorders is not so much from the disorder itself but rather the damage it cases to the tissues and organs the disease affects.

EXAMPLES OF COMMON DISORDERS

autoimmune disease at the back

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In rheumatoid arthritis (also known as RA) the immune system attacks the joints. This causes redness, warmth, and stiffness in the joints. RA can make life difficult for those who suffer from the disease but as the immune system isn’t attacking anything needed for the body to function (such as the heart or kidneys) rheumatoid arthritis is not a disease considered to be life-threatening.

On the other side of the spectrum is systemic Lupus. Doctors in the 1800s first described lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it produces, but lupus actually affects many other organs apart from just the skin. The kidneys, brain, and heart are a few of the major organs often affected by lupus and if left untreated, it is possible in severe cases to cause organ failure. Joint pain, fatigue, and rashes are among the most commonly reported symptoms of lupus.

Some immune disorders are considered more on the severe side while not directly causing any life-threatening damage. Multiple sclerosis, also known as MS, damages the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells known as the myelin sheath. Damage to the myelin sheath affects the transmission of messages between the brain and body. This damage can lead to symptoms like numbness, weakness, muscle spasms, balance issues, and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms which progress at different rates. About 50% of people with MS need help walking within the first 15 years after diagnosis and many may end up in wheelchairs. Though life-span is not affected by MS, the disease is quite debilitating over time.

AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES: SYMPTOMS AND TREATMENTS

SYMPTOMS 

Sign of autoimmune disease in the scalp

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Just as the triggers for an autoimmune reaction are varied, the debilitating effects they carry vary as well depending on the targeted organs and tissues. The biggest indicator that you might have an autoimmune disease is to watch for symptoms that can act as early warning signs. Many symptoms of autoimmune diseases overlap and can appear very similar. Indicative symptoms can include:

  • Swelling and redness
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Achy muscles
  • Numbness
  • Hair loss
  • Skin rashes

Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. Type 1 diabetes, for example, causes extreme thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or RA, symptoms come and go in periods known as flare-ups and can alternate into remission when no symptoms are visible.

TREATMENT

Doctor orienting a person with autoimmune disease

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Autoimmune disorders cannot be cured. However, they can be treated by controlling the overactive response they trigger and bringing down the inflammation that is caused. The most common form of treatment is through the use of pharmaceuticals. Immune-suppressing drugs are prescribed for certain disorders to repress the immune system, calm down the overactive response and bring down inflammation. Because these drugs weaken the immune system, the downside to this treatment method is that it leaves the patient open to complications from illness and infection due to the immune system’s hindered ability to fight.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen can be prescribed to treat some disorders.  This is because of their pain relief and anti-inflammatory properties. Treatments are also available to relieve symptoms caused my autoimmune disorders like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes. Eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise is thought to help as well.

CONCLUSION

The immune system guards against foreign agents that can make us sick. When it senses it's in danger, it sends out cells to defend against these foreign agents. Through a process called the “immune response”, the immune system attacks organisms or substances that invade the body and cause illness. It is an important process that helps keep the body healthy and defend against disease.
 
In some people, the system misfires and the immune response doesn’t work in the way it’s designed to. When this happens, doctors may determine if an autoimmune disorder is the cause of the problem. Many aspects of autoimmune disorders are not known. Doctors still aren't entirely certain what causes them to develop in certain people, but researchers have noted patterns that may point to genetic causes. 
Autoimmune disorders themselves are not dangerous diseases. However, the damage they cause to the body can cause serious complications that can, at times, be life-threatening if left untreated. Drugs aimed at suppressing the immune system have proven to help prevent tissue and organ damage. However, these drugs suppress not only the autoimmune reactions but also the body's ability to defend itself against foreign bodies, leaving the body susceptible to infection and illness.  
There are over 80 different autoimmune diseases and their symptoms will often overlap, making them hard to diagnose. The only way to know for sure if your symptoms are caused by an autoimmune disease is to see a doctor. Depending on the type of disease, you may be referred to a specialist to further explore a treatment plan that works best for you.

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