What are Autoimmune Diseases?

Written & Researched by Lucy Coran

You might have heard of autoimmune diseases, but do you actually know what they are and how common they are? The definition of an autoimmune disease is “a condition in which the body’s immune system mistakes its own healthy tissues as foreign and attacks them” (NIH). Symptoms include fatigue, fever, joint pain, all of which could be mistaken for common cold.

What is an Autoimmune Disorder? And who gets them?

When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system reacts to your body like they would to harmful germs, sending out fighter cells to attack them. Usually, the immune system of healthy people can tell the difference between foreign cells and the body’s own cells. Sometimes, autoimmune disorders attack one organ; for example, Type 1 diabetes only damages the pancreas. Others attack the whole body, such as lupus erythematosus. Doctors still don't know what exactly causes the immune-system misfire, but they do know some people are more susceptible to this abnormal response than others. In a study conducted in 2014, women had autoimmune diseases more than men did. In particular, 6.4% of women vs. 2.7% of men had an autoimmune disorder. Furthermore, some autoimmune disorders are more common in ethnic groups or some even run in families. Even though this doesn’t mean that everyone in a family will have the disorder, it does increase the chances of inheriting one.

How do you get diagnosed with an Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases present a challenge for doctors because many of the early symptoms are common in many illnesses and each disease could show up in different ways for different people. If a doctor is suspicious of an autoimmune disorder, they will usually run multiple lab tests, such as complete blood count, antinuclear antibody, and a complement. An MRI or ultrasound may be used to rule out tumors, infections, and more. While all these techniques are useful in diagnosing autoimmune conditions, classifying symptoms as a specific disorder is not always possible.

What's the Cure or Treatment?

Unfortunately, there is yet to be a permanent cure for autoimmune disorders currently affecting more than 23.5 million Americans but many treatment options are available. Therefore, doctors give treatments for specific disorders. For instance, treatment for Crohn’s disease might be surgery for bowel blockage whereas insulin injections might be recommended for type 1 diabetes.

A list of Common Autoimmune Disorders:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease that leads to the inflammation of the joints and tissue surrounding it. The immune system will mistakenly attack healthy tissue.

  • Celiacs disease occurs when consuming gluten damages the lining of the small intestine. The damaged intestine is not able to absorb nutrients from food.

  • Type 1 Diabetes causes high levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Insulin is traditionally prescribed to move blood sugar into the cells.

  • Psoriasis is a disease that causes red, itchy patches on the skin. This disease occurs because of the immune system speeding up skin cell growth.

Autoimmune diseases are more common than you think. They can affect your family, your friends and even yourself. Indeed, it's helpful to know what's actually happening to people with autoimmune disorders to help them more effectively.


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