The human immune system is a complex network of cells, tissues and organs that work together to defend against germs. Your immune system is what keeps you from getting sick constantly, and what helps you recover from an illness. When a person’s immune system doesn’t work, they get sick. But what’s even more serious is having an autoimmune disease – your immune system sees healthy body cells as foreign objects and attacks them.
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA) 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune diseases, with 75% of them women.
Autoimmune diseases have been cited in the top ten leading causes of all deaths among U.S. women age 65 and younger. It has also shown to be hereditary, with some autoimmune diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis running in families.
What are Some of the Most Common Autoimmune Diseases?
The list of autoimmune diseases is long and getting longer. The instances in which a person’s own body attacks itself are becoming more recognizable. Here are some common diseases that fall under the autoimmune category:
Alopecia: The immune system attacks hair follicles, leaving patchy lair loss on the scalp or other areas of the body.
Celiac Disease: The body cannot tolerate gluten, a substance found in wheat, rye and barley, because of damage to the small intestines. It can cause cramping, bloating, fatigue and infertility.
Type 1 Diabetes: The immune system attacks the cells that make insulin, a hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. Too much sugar in the blood hurts major organs like the heart and kidneys.
Guillain-Barre Syndrome: The immune system attacks the nerves that connect your brain & spinal cord with the rest of your body. The nerves can’t transmit signals, leading to weakness, tingling, and even paralysis.
Multiple Sclerosis: The protective coating around the nerves is damaged, affecting the brain & spinal cord. Sufferers have trouble with physical coordination and speaking.
Psoriasis: Disease that causes new skin cells that grow deep in the skin to rise too fast and pile up on the skin surface, resulting in thick red patches on the skin that can be itchy or painful.
Lupus: This disease damages the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs and other parts of the body. Common symptoms are fatigue, mouth sores, hair loss, rashes and changes in behavior.
Diagnosing Autoimmune Diseases
Because the number of possible diseases is large, the diagnostic plan varies depending on the symptoms.
Ordinarily, your immune system produces antibodies (proteins that recognize and destroy specific substances) against harmful invaders in your body, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi. When you have an autoimmune disease, your body produces antibodies against some of your own tissues. Diagnosing an autoimmune disease involves identifying the antibodies your body is producing.
The following tests are used to diagnose an autoimmune disease:
• antinuclear antibody tests—a type of autoantibody test that looks for antinuclear antibodies, which attack the nuclei of cells in your body
• autoantibody tests—any of several tests that look for specific antibodies to your own tissues
• complete blood count (CBC)—measures the numbers of red and white cells in your blood. When your immune system is actively fighting something, these numbers will vary from the norm
• C-reactive protein (CRP)—elevated CRP is an indication of inflammation throughout your body
• erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)—this test indirectly measures how much inflammation is in your body
Treating Autoimmune Diseases
Different specialists handle different conditions, so finding a treatment option after diagnosis depends on the disorder. You would go to a nephrologist for kidney issues caused by lupus, or a neurologist for nerve problems associated with multiple sclerosis. Treatment for the diseases also varies, but doctors are in agreement on a few basics:
• Relieve symptoms. Some people can use over-the-counter drugs for mild symptoms, like aspirin and ibuprofen for mild pain. Others with more severe symptoms may need prescription drugs to help relieve symptoms such as pain, swelling, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, or rashes. For others, treatment may be as involved as having surgery.
• Replace vital substances the body can no longer make on its own. Some autoimmune diseases, like diabetes and thyroid disease, can affect the body’s ability to make substances it needs to function. With diabetes, insulin injections are needed to regulate blood sugar. Thyroid hormone replacement restores thyroid hormone levels in people with underactive thyroid.
• Suppress the immune system. Some drugs can suppress immune system activity. These drugs can help control the disease process and preserve organ function. For instance, these drugs are used to control inflammation in affected kidneys in people with lupus to keep the kidneys working. Medicines used to suppress inflammation include chemotherapy given at lower doses than for cancer treatment and drugs used in patients who have had an organ transplant to protect against rejection. A class of drugs called anti-TNF medications blocks inflammation in some forms of autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis.
Alternative methods of treatment such as acupuncture or chiropractic care have been known to help relieve symptoms of many autoimmune diseases as well.
Preventing Autoimmune Flare-Ups
Flares are the sudden and severe onset of symptoms. You might notice that certain triggers, such as stress or being out in the sun, cause your symptoms to flare. Knowing your triggers, following your treatment plan, and seeing your doctor regularly can help you to prevent flares or keep them from becoming severe. If you suspect a flare is coming, call your doctor. Don’t try a “cure” you heard about from a friend or relative.
Keeping a journal and taking note of certain things you ate or did before a flare up can help you and your doctor determine what the triggers are, so you can adjust accordingly and try to avoid the triggers in the future.
Most autoimmune diseases are chronic, but can be controlled with treatment. If anyone in your family suffers from an autoimmune disease, your chances are higher of also getting it. Make sure you know your family health history and pay attention to signs from your body that something is not right. Diagnosing a disease as early as possible and becoming educated about treatment, symptoms and triggers is the best defense against it taking control of your life.