There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, including conditions such as celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis. These occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the human body.
This statistic comes from the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
Autoimmune diseases are common, affecting more than 23.5 million people in the United States. Females and those with a family history of autoimmune diseases are more likely to develop them.
This article provides a list of autoimmune diseases and their symptoms.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the skin.
Psoriasis causes patches of flaky, inflamed skin. This occurs due to the skin producing too many new skin cells. Psoriasis is usually not a serious condition, but it can be painful or distressing.
The symptoms of psoriasis include:
- thick, inflamed patches of skin, usually on the head, elbows, and knees
- scaly skin
Treatment options include biologics, methotrexate, topical ointments, and UV light therapy.
Vitiligo is a chronic condition that causes the skin to lose its color. One type of vitiligo, called non-segmental vitiligo, is an autoimmune disease.
Dermatologists believe that it occurs when the immune system attacks melanocytes, which are cells that produce melanin.
It is not uncommon for vitiligo to occur alongside other autoimmune conditions, such as lupus and Sjogren’s syndrome.
The symptoms of vitiligo include:
- white or light patches of skin on the hands, feet, arms, and face
- white or gray hair on the scalp, brows, or eyelashes
- discoloration on the inside of the mouth and nose
Vitiligo is not harmful to the body, but it can be very distressing for some people, especially those with darker skin. Certain treatments can slow or stop the discoloration, including medications and UV light therapy.
Scleroderma causes an abnormal growth of connective tissue in the skin and blood vessels, leading to skin that is hard and thick.
In some people, the condition is mild, but in some others, scleroderma can affect internal organs and be life threatening.
- calcium deposits in the connective tissues
- Raynaud’s phenomenon, which causes the fingers to change color when they are cold
- ulcers on the fingertips, which can lead to gangrene
- thickening and tightness of the skin on the fingers and toes
- loss of motility in the esophagus, which may make it difficult to swallow
- red spots or blood vessels on the face
- progressive shortness of breath
There is currently no cure for scleroderma, but a person can treat the symptoms using medications for heartburn and bowel discomfort. Sometimes, a doctor may also recommend immunosuppressants, especially for fibrosing (scarring) lung disease.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the blood.
Hemolytic anemia occurs when the immune system destroys a person’s red blood cells. This causes an oxygen deficiency, leading to symptoms such as:
- shortness of breath
- cold hands or feet
- yellow skin or whites of the eyes
- cardiovascular problems, including heart failure
Doctors treat hemolytic anemia with corticosteroids, which reduce inflammation, and immunosuppressant drugs, which lower immune system activity.
A doctor might also consider a splenectomy, which refers to the surgical removal of the spleen. The spleen removes damaged red blood cells from circulation, so by removing it, a person is less likely to have low red blood cell levels.
However, autoimmune processes can also affect other blood cells. When they affect platelets, it can lead to thrombocytopenia. When they affect white blood cells, it can give rise to leukopenia, lymphopenia, and neutropenia.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the digestive system.
In celiac disease, a person’s immune system reacts to gluten, which is a protein that foods such as bread, pasta, and barley contain.
If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, they may experience:
- abdominal bloating and pain
- diarrhea or constipation
- weight loss
- joint pain
- missed menstrual periods
- an itchy rash
Repeated exposure to gluten may damage the intestinal lining. However, most people with celiac disease can prevent these symptoms by removing sources of gluten from their diet.
Inflammatory bowel disease
The most common forms of IBD are Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
The symptoms of IBD can include:
- abdominal pain
- diarrhea, which is sometimes bloody
- mouth ulcers
- painful or difficult bowel movements
- rectal bleeding
- weight loss
IBD does not currently have a cure, but people may see an improvement in symptoms and their quality of life by changing their eating habits. Medications such as aminosalicylates, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants — including biologics — can also help.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the hormones.
Type 1 diabetes
Without the hormone, a person’s blood sugar level remains high, causing symptoms such as:
- a frequent need to urinate
- unintentional weight loss
- slow wound healing
- dry or itchy skin
- numbness or tingling in the feet
- blurry vision
People with type 1 diabetes can manage the condition with daily insulin injections to balance out the amount of carbohydrates they eat.
Unlike type 2 diabetes, a person cannot prevent type 1 diabetes by making diet or lifestyle changes. However, monitoring diet and exercise levels can help reduce symptoms.
- heat sensitivity
- fine or brittle hair
- muscle weakness
- weight loss
- light menstrual periods or no periods
- bulging eyes
- shaky hands
- racing heartbeat
There are several treatment options for Graves’ disease. Antithyroid medications can lower thyroid hormone levels, and radioactive iodine damages the thyroid cells so that they do not produce as much hormone. In severe cases, a doctor may recommend removing part or all of the thyroid gland.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition wherein the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to produce less thyroid hormone.
This usually leads to an underactive thyroid, which causes symptoms such as:
- hair loss
- muscle aches
- facial swelling
- weight gain
- sensitivity to cold
- stiff joints
The main treatment for Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a daily dose of levothyroxine, which increases thyroid hormone levels.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the nervous system.
In multiple sclerosis (MS), the immune system mistakenly attacks the myelin sheath that protects the nerves. This causes damage, affecting the transmission of information to and from the brain and spinal cord and the nerves they connect with.
The symptoms of MS include:
- weakness in the extremities
- difficulty with coordination, balance, speaking, and walking
- numbness or tingling in the arms, legs, hands, and feet
- vision loss
There is currently no cure for MS, but some medications may reduce the symptoms and the underlying disease process. The type of medication that the condition responds to will vary from case to case.
- muscle weakness and unsteadiness
- vision problems
- difficulty chewing or swallowing
- pins and needles in the hands or feet
- lack of bladder control
- chronic pain
- unusual heart rate or blood pressure
- breathing problems
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare condition that can be severe, but with medical support, recovery is possible.
To treat and prevent further nerve damage, a doctor may use plasma exchange, high dose immunoglobulin therapy, and high dose steroids.
The following sections will discuss some autoimmune conditions affecting the joints.
Rheumatoid arthritis occurs when the immune system attacks the lining of the joints (synovium), causing inflammation and discomfort. Rheumatoid arthritis can affect many joints, but it commonly affects the hands, wrists, and knees on both sides of the body.
- pain or aching in the joints
- stiffness in multiple joints, especially in the morning
- tenderness and swelling
- weight loss
- eye inflammation
- lung disease
- lumps of tissue under the skin, often near the elbows (rheumatoid nodules)
Doctors tend to treat this condition using antirheumatic drugs, including biologics, that slow disease progression and prevent joint deformity.
There are many autoimmune diseases. Some cause distressing symptoms that affect a person’s quality of life but otherwise are not life threatening. Other autoimmune conditions are more serious and can cause lasting tissue damage.
In many cases, management strategies such as taking medication, modifying the diet, and making lifestyle changes can help reduce the symptoms.
A doctor can help diagnose and recommend treatments for specific autoimmune conditions.