What is an Autoimmune Disease? Causes and Symptoms

What is autoimmune disease? It develops when the body’s immune system, which defends the body against antigens, starts attacking and destroying the healthy body tissues. It can also lead to abnormal growth of an organ or bring changes in organ functions. There are about 80 types of autoimmune disorders, with similar symptoms, making them difficult to diagnose. There is no cure for autoimmune diseases; treatments focus on relieving the symptoms.

Autoimmune Disease Causes and Symptoms1

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

Since there are various types of autoimmune diseases, symptoms may vary by the type and location of the defective immune response. Common symptoms of autoimmune diseases include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Malaise
  • Rash

Autoimmune diseases affect various parts of our bodies. Joints, skin, muscles, red blood cells, blood vessels and endocrine glands are some organs and tissues at risk.

Autoimmune Disease Causes

The white blood cells in the blood protect our body against harmful substances like viruses, bacteria, toxins, cancer cells, etc. which contain antigens. Antibodies are produced by the immune system to destroy these antigens.

In case of an autoimmune disorder the immune system fails to distinguish between healthy tissues and antigens. As a result, normal tissues are destroyed in the process of destroying the antigens.

The autoimmune diseases causes are yet to be known. There are various theories, one of them is that some microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria, or drugs may trigger changes that confound the immune system and disrupts the process of antigen destruction.

One can also be susceptible to autoimmune disease if one has a family history of autoimmune disease.

Common Autoimmune Diseases

A person may acquire more than one autoimmune disease at the same time. Types of autoimmune diseases and their treatments include:

Rheumatoid arthritis: It is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system produces antibodies that attach themselves to the joint linings, attack the joints, and causes swelling and inflammation of joints and acute joint pain. Rheumatoid arthritis, if untreated, leads to permanent joint damage. Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis includes various oral or injectable medications which help in reducing over-activity of the immune system.

Systemic lupus erythematosus: It commonly affects the lungs, joints, nerves, blood cells and kidneys. People affected by this autoimmune disease develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach themselves to tissues all over the body. Oral prednisone, a steroid that decreases the activity of the immune system, has to be taken regularly for the treatment of Systemic lupus erythematosus.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): The lining of the intestines is attacked by the immune system, which may lead to rectal bleeding, diarrhoea, urgent bowel movements, fever, abdominal pain and weight loss. Two forms of inflammatory bowel disease are Crohn’s disease and Ulcerative colitis. This can be treated by oral or injected immune-suppressing medicines.

Multiple sclerosis (MS): The nerve cells are attacked by the immune system that may result in pain, weakness, muscle spasms, blindness and poor coordination. There are various medications that may suppress the immune system and treat multiple sclerosis.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus: In this autoimmune disease, the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas are attacked and destroyed by the immune system antibodies. People suffering from this autoimmune disease require insulin injections for survival.

Guillain-Barre syndrome: The nerves which control the movement of the leg muscles, muscles of arms and upper body are attacked by the immune system and it results in weakness. Plasmapheresis, a procedure which filters the blood is used to treat Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Psoriasis: Silvery, scaly plaques are produced on the skin due to rapid reproduction of skin cells stimulated by the over-activity of the immune system. T-cells, the overactive immune system cells get collected in the skin causing this autoimmune disease.

Graves’ disease: Antibodies produced by the immune system stimulate the thyroid gland to discharge excess thyroid hormone into the blood. Symptoms of this disease are bulging eyes, weight loss, irritability, nervousness, weakness, rapid heart rate and brittle hair. The treatment for this disease includes destruction or removal of the thyroid gland with medication or surgery.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: In this autoimmune disease, the immune system produces antibodies which attack the thyroid gland and slowly destroy the thyroid hormone producing cells. It may result in hypothyroidism. Symptoms of this disease can include weight gain, fatigue, dry skin, constipation, depression and sensitivity to cold. Treatment for this disease includes oral synthetic thyroid hormone pill which has to be taken regularly to restore normal body functions.

Autoimmune Disease

Myasthenia gravis: In this autoimmune disease, the nerves are unable to stimulate the muscles properly because of the antibodies which bind themselves to the nerves, causing weakness. It is the primary symptom of myasthenia gravis. It is treated with Mestinon.

Vasculitis: It is caused when the blood vessels are attacked and damaged by the immune system, affecting any organ in the body. Treatment for this autoimmune disease includes prednisone or other corticosteroids to reduce immune system activity.

Other common autoimmune diseases are Addison’s disease, Celiac Disease, Dermatomyositis, Pernicious anemia, Reactive arthritis, Sjogren syndrome, Frsystemic lupus erythematosus.

Autoimmune Disease Treatment

The treatment of autoimmune diseases depends on the particular disease and its symptoms. Types of medical interventions include:

  • Supplements to replace the substances lacking in the body, such as vitamin B12, thyroid hormone, or insulin, as an outcome of autoimmune disease
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Blood transfusions, only if the blood is affected
  • Immunosuppressive medication which include corticosteroids and nonsteroid drugs such as azathioprine, mycophenolate, cyclophosphamide, sirolimus, or tacrolimus
  • Physical therapy if the bones or muscles are affected

Alternate therapies for autoimmune disease treatment include certain herbs, acupuncture, hypnosis and chiropractic therapy.

Autoimmune diseases have no prevention and cure. The goals of autoimmune disease treatment are to reduce the symptoms, to control the autoimmune process and to maintain the body’s ability to fight disease. To alleviate the symptoms of autoimmune diseases, one should eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, regulate stress, get plenty of rest and take vitamin supplements. The outcome of the treatments depends on the disease. Most of them are chronic, but can be controlled with treatment. Remember to call your doctor if you develop symptoms of an autoimmune disease.

All the treatments – medicines, injections and vaccines are for general information of the reader. Please consult a doctor and get a formal prescription before taking any medicines, supplements and injections.

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