Autoimmune Disorders

Autoimmune disorders occur when the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues as if they were disease-causing foreign substances. According to the National Institutes of Health, autoimmune diseases affect more than 23.5 million Americans, the majority of them women.

What Are Autoimmune Disorders?

The immune system protects the body from disease and infection by fighting off viruses and bacteria. Normally, the immune system can recognize the difference between the body’s own cells, tissues and organs and foreign substances.

In autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakenly attacks the body, destroying healthy tissue or changing how organs function. Autoimmune disease can affect any part of the body, including the blood and blood vessels, brain, glands, joints, muscles, skin and spinal cord.

Types of Autoimmune Disorders

According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, there are more than 80 autoimmune disorders. Here is a list of some of the more common autoimmune diseases:

  • Addison’s disease — a lack of certain hormones, such as cortisol or aldosterone
  • alopecia areata — abnormal hair loss
  • antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, or APS — a disorder affecting phospholipids, a type of fat found in blood and blood vessel cells
  • autoimmune hepatitis — liver inflammation and damage
  • celiac disease — a reaction to gluten in food that damages intestinal tissue
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome — which damages the nerves that send signals between the brain and muscles
  • hemolytic anemia — a deficiency of healthy red blood cells
  • insulin dependent diabetes mellitus — Type 1 diabetes
  • multiple sclerosis or MS — inflammatory disorder of the nervous system
  • myasthenia gravis — a disorder of nerves and muscles
  • psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis — a skin disorder that can cause joint inflammation
  • rheumatoid arthritis — an inflammatory disease affecting the joints as well as other tissues and organs
  • scleroderma — a thickening and tightening of skin, inflammation and scarring in other body parts
  • systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE — widespread inflammation resulting in organ and tissue damage
  • thyroid disorders — which include Grave’s disease, an overactive thyroid, and Hashimoto’s disease, an underactive thyroid
  • vitiligo — a patchy loss of or skin pigmentation or coloring

Causes of Autoimmune Disorders

The exact causes of autoimmune disorders are not known. Many autoimmune disorders tend to run in families and having one autoimmune disorder increases the risk of having another, suggesting that they may be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Signs and Symptoms of Autoimmune Disorders

The symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary widely depending on the specific disorder.

Symptoms can fluctuate in intensity: flaring up, then subsiding, then flaring again. In some conditions symptoms may go into remission, disappearing for a time and reappearing later. Symptoms that autoimmune diseases may share include:

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • fever
  • general feeling of being unwell
  • joint pain
  • rash

How Are Autoimmune Disorders Diagnosed?

For most autoimmune disorders there is no single or specific diagnostic test. Many symptoms of autoimmune disorders resemble those of other diseases, making diagnosis more difficult.

In addition to physical examination, review of family medical history and monitoring of symptoms, diagnostic tests may include:

  • antinuclear antibody test
  • autoantibody tests
  • complete blood count, including white blood cell differential
  • comprehensive metabolic panel
  • c-reactive protein
  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate
  • immunoglobulin A
  • urinalysis

If an autoimmune disorder is suspected, additional specialized testing may be needed to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatments for Autoimmune Disorders

Though autoimmune disease cannot be cured, many symptoms can be managed. Options may include:

  • immunosuppressive medicines to control immune system responses
  • supplements to restore balance of vital substances such as insulin, thyroid hormones or vitamin B12
  • therapies to relieve other symptoms such inflammation, anxiety, depression and sleep problems

Additional treatments may be needed depending on the specific autoimmune disorder.