10 Facts About Autoimmune Diseases
There are more than 100 types of autoimmune diseases. The most common autoimmune diseases are type 1 diabetes mellitus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriasis, multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, Graves' disease, Addison's disease, Sjögren's syndrome, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, myasthenia gravis, pernicious anemia and autoimmune vasculitis.
Autoimmune diseases happen when the immune system attacks healthy cells. This occurs when the immune system cannot tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. The body releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells.
Some autoimmune diseases attack only one organ, while others affect the entire body. For example, type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas, while lupus affects the whole body.
Autoimmune diseases are thought to involve/result from a complex interplay, including genetics, diet, infections and health processes, as well as exposure to smoking, chemicals and certain medications.
Patients who are overweight or obese are at an increased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis because more weight puts greater stress on the joints, and having excess adipose (fat) tissue and a high-fat diet are associated with increased inflammatory response.
Common symptoms of autoimmune diseases are fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain and swelling, skin problems, abdominal pain or digestive issues, recurring fever and swollen glands.
Women are affected by autoimmune diseases roughly twice as much as men, with one study reporting that 6.4 percent of women versus 2.7 percent of men are affected by autoimmune diseases. The disease often first manifests in a woman's childbearing years (15 to 45 years old).
Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, are more common in certain ethnic groups. Lupus is diagnosed more in Black and Latinx Americans than in white Americans. There is also an element of hereditary, as multiple sclerosis and lupus appear to run in families.
There is no single test to diagnose most autoimmune diseases. The antinuclear antibodies test (ANA) is usually the first test done. A positive test indicates the presence of antinuclear antibodies in your blood, which can mean a number of things. This may include having certain autoimmune diseases associated with these antibodies or it could be a result of using certain medications. For others, it may not mean anything at all, as ANA levels do increase with the normal aging process, and often many healthy patients with positive ANA tests/levels live without symptoms or health consequences. It is important that you discuss with your doctor what a positive test means for you and if further follow-up testing and questions may be needed.
There are other health risks associated with autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and others. For example, research has indicated people with lupus are 50 times more likely to suffer a heart attack.
Diagnosis and treatment
Getting a conclusive diagnosis for an autoimmune disease can take time and persistence. Because autoimmune diseases often mimic other illnesses, diagnosis can be complicated. With no precise test for every autoimmune disease and the complexity of overlap of symptoms in both physical and mental health dimensions, it can be a difficult ordeal for both the patient and provider involved in the treatment of these conditions. It may be beneficial to get a second opinion from other generalists or specialist physicians to help better answer any questions or points of uncertainty.
Treatments for autoimmune diseases are personal in nature, as doctors spend a great deal of time understanding, treating and managing the symptoms of each patient. One patient's lupus may result in kidney disease that requires prescribed immunosuppressant drugs, while another patient's disease may manifest as a rash and joint pain, requiring medication. It is not unusual to have a team of specialists involved in your care/treatment plan, which may include a rheumatologist, endocrinologist, gastroenterologist, nephrologist, neurologist, dermatologist or occupational/physical therapist. Extreme fatigue is another issue common among autoimmune diseases that the medical team can help manage.
Regular checkups are vital, as is sufficient, quality sleep and a healthy diet. Frequent lab tests are often required to monitor the effects any medications can have on other organs.
Autoimmune diseases are complex and one of the top causes of death and disability in the U.S. But because this category of disease affects more than 24 million Americans, awareness is growing and ongoing research is leading to new treatments all the time. If you come across a question or concern regarding a potential autoimmune disease, talk to your doctor.