Dr. Linette Williamson - Autoimmune Diseases in Oceanside
What Is an Autoimmune Disease?
An autoimmune disease is a disorder in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system typically guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it detects these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them.
Usually, the immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. In an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. It releases proteins called auto-antibodies that attack healthy cells.
Some autoimmune diseases target just one organ. Type 1 diabetes damages the pancreas. Other diseases, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), impact the entire body.
There are many kinds of autoimmune diseases. The most prevalent ones include:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA)
- Celiac disease
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Type I Diabetes
- Addison's disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBS)
- Hashimoto's disease
- Grave's disease
- Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)
Why Does the Immune System Attack the Body?
Physicians do not know precisely what triggers the immune-system misfire. Yet some individuals are more likely to get an autoimmune disease than others.
According to a 2014 study, women get autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to males-- 6.4 percent of women vs. 2.7 percent of males. Usually the disease starts during a woman's childbearing years (ages 15 to 44).
Some autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in specific ethnic groups. For example, lupus impacts more African-American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.
Certain autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every relative will always have the same disease, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.
Since the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, researchers think environmental aspects like infections and exposure to chemicals or solvents may also be involved.
A "Western diet" is another suspected risk factor for developing an autoimmune disease. Eating high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed foods is believed to be connected to inflammation, which could set off an immune response. However, this hasn't been proven.
A 2015 study focused on another theory called the hygiene hypothesis. Because of vaccines and antiseptics, kids today aren't subjected to as many germs as they were in the past. The lack of exposure might make their immune system prone to overreact to benign substances.
Autoimmune Disease Symptoms
The initial signs of several autoimmune diseases are very similar, such as:
- Achy muscles
- Swelling and redness
- Low-grade fever
- Difficulty concentrating
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Loss of hair
- Skin rashes
Individual diseases can also have their own unique symptoms. For instance, type 1 diabetes triggers excessive thirst, weight loss, and fatigue. IBD causes belly pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
With autoimmune diseases like psoriasis or RA, symptoms may come and go. A period of symptoms is called a flare-up. A period when the symptoms go away is called remission.
Tests That Diagnose Autoimmune Diseases
No one test can identify most autoimmune diseases. Your doctor may use a combination of tests and an evaluation of your symptoms and physical examination to diagnose you.
The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is often among the first tests that physicians use when symptoms imply an autoimmune disease. A positive test suggests you might have one of these diseases, but it won't verify precisely which one you have or if you have one for sure.
Other tests try to find certain autoantibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases. Your physician might also do nonspecific tests to check for the inflammation these diseases generate in the body.
How Are Autoimmune Diseases Treated?
Treatments can't cure autoimmune diseases, but they can manage the overactive immune response and bring down inflammation or at least minimize pain and inflammation. Drugs used to treat these conditions include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Naprosyn)
- Immune-suppressing drugs
Treatments are also available to alleviate symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue, and skin rashes.
Eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise may also aid you feel better.
The Bottom Line
More than 80 different autoimmune diseases exist. Often their symptoms overlap, making them hard to diagnose.
Autoimmune diseases are more common in women, and they often run in families.
Blood tests that look for autoantibodies can help physicians identify these conditions. Treatments include medications to calm the overactive immune response and bring down inflammation in the body.