Our immune systems are critical to our health. They fight infections and protect us from disease by attacking harmful substances in our bodies. But when you have an autoimmune disease, it means your immune system gets confused and starts attacking healthy cells.
Autoimmune diseases are relatively common: More than 23.5 million Americans suffer from one of them. It’s unknown what causes autoimmune diseases, but factors appear to include:
- Genetics: Autoimmune diseases tend to run in families.
- Environment: Exposure to infections or environmental factors can play a role.
- Gender and race: Women, particularly African-American, Hispanic American and Native American women, are more prone to autoimmune diseases.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disease, including:
- Alopecia areata
- Autoimmune hepatitis
- Celiac disease
- Graves’ disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
What Are the Symptoms?
It can be difficult to diagnose autoimmune diseases because there are so many different conditions and so many symptoms are the same as other health problems.
The main sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can manifest itself in many different ways depending on which part or parts of the body are being targeted. Some common symptoms include:
- Itchy skin
- Joint pain
- Weight loss or weight gain
Treatments for autoimmune diseases are focused on disease management and typically fall into one of the following categories:
- Easing symptoms. Treatments may include physical therapy, over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen for mild symptoms, prescription medication to help with more severe symptoms, or surgery.
- Replacing materials the body cannot make on its own. For example, someone with diabetes needs insulin injections to regulate blood sugar.
Suppressing the immune system. Since the immune system is attacking healthy cells, suppressing the immune system can stop it in its tracks, helping reduce inflammation and slowing the progression of the disease.