Autoimmune diseases vary widely, but they all involve the immune system attacking healthy tissue. Examples include psoriatic disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and celiac disease.
Autoimmune diseases can affect almost every body part or system. There are
Common examples include psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Grave’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes.
The immune system is a network of tissues, organs, and cells. Its role is to defend the body against harmful organisms, such as bacteria and viruses, warding off infection and disease.
In a person with an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body cells and tissues.
Researchers do not know the causes of many autoimmune conditions, but genetic factors, past infections, and environmental factors can affect their development.
Long-term treatments aim to reduce the strength of immune responses. Antibiotics have no involvement because these diseases are not bacterial infections.
This article provides an overview of some common autoimmune conditions. It also describes risk factors, the process of reaching a diagnosis, and treatments.
Autoimmune diseases are relatively common. According to some estimates,
Below, find examples of autoimmune diseases that occur frequently.
Psoriasis causes the immune system to disrupt the healthy formation of skin cells. This leads to scaly, dry, itchy patches of skin, along with joint pain.
Estimates suggest that more than 8 million people in the U.S. have psoriasis, which affects 2–3% of the world’s population.
There are many types of psoriasis, each with different symptoms. Some types are more common than others.
Common triggers for psoriasis include stress, infections, and environmental factors.
Psoriatic arthritis is an autoimmune joint condition that develops in about 3 in 10 people who have psoriasis. It tends to show up around 10 years after psoriasis develops. However, it is also possible to develop psoriatic arthritis without psoriasis.
In psoriatic arthritis, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joints as well as surrounding tendons and ligaments. This leads to symptoms such as joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and reduced range of motion. It often affects small joints in the body, such as those in the fingers and toes.
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common chronic autoimmune disorders. It causes the immune system to attack healthy joints and surrounding tissue. It often affects the hands, wrists, and knees.
About 1.3 million adults in the U.S. have this condition. It is two to three times more common in females than in males.
Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:
- pain, tenderness, and swelling around the joints
- joint stiffness
- symptoms that appear on both sides of the body, such as on both hands or knees
- weight loss
Systemic lupus erythematosus
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) refers to a range of conditions marked by inflammation of the skin, joints, and — when severe — internal organs.
Lupus generally affects around 1.5 million people in the U.S. and 5 million people worldwide. Most people with lupus are female.
Symptoms of SLE, which is the most common type of lupus, include:
- muscle and joint pain
- a butterfly-shaped rash on the face
- sun sensitivity
- a fever
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, also known as Hashimoto’s disease, is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks cells that create thyroid hormones. This leads to an underactive thyroid, known as hypothyroidism.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis affects around
- a goiter, which is swelling at the front of the neck
- weight gain
- joint and muscle pain
- increased sensitivity to cold
- a slowed heart rate
- heavy or irregular menstruation
Graves’ disease is an autoimmune condition that causes the thyroid gland to produce too much thyroid hormone. This leads to hyperthyroidism.
It affects about 1 in 200 people. It is more common in females than males.
- nervousness or anxiety
- a rapid, irregular heartbeat
- shaky hands
- high blood pressure
- sweating and difficulty tolerating hot conditions
- weight loss
- light, irregular menstruation
- a goiter
IBD is a long-term digestive condition. In a person with IBD, an immune system response to environmental triggers leads to inflammation in the stomach and gut.
The condition may affect around
There are two main types of IBD: Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Crohn’s disease involves chronic inflammation occurring anywhere from the mouth to the end of the large intestine. Ulcerative colitis involves long-term inflammation of the large intestine.
Symptoms of IBD include:
- stomach pain
- persistent diarrhea
- blood in stool
- weight loss
Celiac disease is an immune disorder that causes the lining of the small intestine to become inflamed after the person eats foods that contain gluten.
It can lead to abdominal pain, an inability to absorb key nutrients, and some other symptoms, such as joint pain and characteristic rashes.
The immune response is genetically determined and targets gliadin, a component of gluten.
Gluten is a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Eliminating it from the diet helps control the signs and symptoms of celiac disease.
When a person with the condition eats gluten, their immune system attacks healthy tissue in the small intestine. Over time this damages the organ, preventing it from absorbing nutrients properly.
Symptoms of celiac disease include:
- inflammation and pain in the abdomen
- a burning sensation in the chest
- weight loss
- a rash
- joint pain
- vomiting or diarrhea
Celiac disease is different from gluten intolerance or sensitivity. Either of these issues can cause symptoms similar to those of celiac disease, but there is no damage to the digestive system.
Type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes causes the immune system to destroy cells in the pancreas that create insulin, known as beta cells. As a result, the pancreas is less able to make insulin, leading to insulin deficiency.
Not having enough insulin means that sugars cannot transport around the body properly, leading to high blood sugar levels.
About 1 in 300 people in the U.S. have type 1 diabetes by age 18. Symptoms include:
- frequent urination
- increased thirst
- a loss of energy
- blurred vision
Autoimmune diseases can develop in anyone, but certain factors increase the risk.
The risk factors vary among the many types of autoimmune disease, but some common factors include:
- Genetics: Some autoimmune conditions run in families. A person may inherit genes that predispose them to a condition but only develop it after exposure to a combination of triggers.
- Environmental factors: Sunlight, certain chemicals, and viral or bacterial infections can all affect the development of autoimmune conditions.
- Sex: More females have autoimmune disorders than males. Doctors believe that hormonal factors play a role. The disorders often develop during a female’s childbearing years.
- Race: This
appears toplay a role in the diagnosis and severity of certain autoimmune diseases. For example, more white people receive a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes, while lupus is more severe in African American and Hispanic people.
- Other autoimmune conditions: A person with one autoimmune disorder has an increased risk of developing another.
Diagnosing autoimmune diseases can be a challenging, lengthy process. For some, it may take years to receive the right diagnosis. This can be due to a variety of reasons:
- Not all symptoms always appear at the same time.
- Symptoms can be intermittent or gradually develop over time.
- Certain symptoms can overlap with the symptoms of other issues, particularly other autoimmune disorders.
For example, lupus can affect the joints similarly to rheumatoid arthritis, but the symptoms tend to be less severe. IBD causes similar symptoms to celiac disease, but IBD is not typically a result of consuming gluten.
The diagnostic process also differs depending on the specific disease. However, it usually involves blood tests.
In some cases, blood tests can indicate various conditions. For instance, diagnosing Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease requires a simple test to measure levels of thyroid hormone.
A test known as a complete blood count allows a doctor to check the levels of white and red blood cells in the body. When the immune system is fighting off something, the levels are different from the usual baseline.
A doctor may be able to diagnose an autoimmune disease by analyzing antibodies that the immune system produces. However, sometimes autoantibody blood tests are positive for many years before symptoms develop.
Other tests can indicate unusual inflammation — an issue that is fairly common among all autoimmune diseases. These tests include a C-reactive protein test and an erythrocyte sedimentation rate test.
To help the diagnostic process, experts
- writing out a family health history
- recording symptoms over time
- seeing a specialist
Because autoimmune diseases can involve a single organ or be systemic in nature and involve multiple organs, it is important for a person to meet with a specialist.
If it involves a single organ such as the thyroid or pancreas, an endocrinologist — a specialist in that organ — is the best type of doctor for a person to see. For a systemic disease involving the connective tissue, such as the joints and muscles, a rheumatologist may be the best doctor for a person to see.
In many cases, it may also help to seek out a second, third, or fourth opinion, as well.
While there is no cure for any autoimmune condition, treatments can reduce or eliminate symptoms, slow the progression of the illness, and improve quality of life.
Specific approaches vary by condition, but common treatments include:
This may involve taking aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce mild pain and swelling or prescribed alternatives, depending on the severity of the symptoms.
Prescribed medications can also help with:
- sleep problems
In many cases, getting regular exercise and having a balanced, nutritious diet can also help.
Taking replacement drugs
Some autoimmune disorders affect the body’s ability to produce what it needs. For instance, type 1 diabetes keeps the body from creating enough insulin, and thyroid disease prevents it from producing the right amount of thyroid hormone.
Various medications can replace these substances. A person may have insulin injections or take pills that contain synthetic versions of thyroid hormone.
For many people, medications that suppress the immune system can relieve the symptoms of an autoimmune disorder and slow its progression.
However, these drugs, known as immunosuppressants, can cause side effects.
In some cases, avoiding things that trigger the immune system reaction can help ease or eliminate symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.
Common triggers include:
There are many types of autoimmune disease, and their symptoms can overlap. This may make it difficult to get an accurate diagnosis.
Autoimmune conditions are a leading cause of disability and death in the U.S. Any person who believes that they may have one should contact a doctor.