Your body’s immune system is the incredibly helpful device that protects you from getting diseases, infections and viruses. It protects you against the common cold, flus and countless other germs and bacteria that would otherwise damage or destroy your body. When one has an autoimmune disease, however, the immune system ends up attacking its own healthy cells by mistake, which is understandably a fairly serious health concern.
What Is An Autoimmune Disease?
Simply stated, this disease is a condition in which your immune system mainly attacks your own body rather than behaving normally or properly by guarding against harmful bacteria and viruses. If working appropriately, when the immune system senses foreign invaders – such as germs, bacteria and viruses – it sends out its army of fighting cells to attack and destroy them. Most of the time, the immune system is easily able to determine the difference between a foreign cell and your own healthy, bodily cells.
In the case of an autoimmune disease, however, the immune system somehow mistakes part of your body – such as your joints, skin, or other – as some kind of foreign entity in need of destruction. As it is prone to do against viral infections, your immune system then releases proteins called autoantibodies to attack the healthy cells of your body that it believes are foreign.
Can You Cure An Autoimmune Disease?
While no one is certain why autoimmune diseases occur, they tend to run in families and women, particularly African American, Hispanic-American and Native-American women are more likely to be affected. Treatments for autoimmune diseases are not able to cure the disease, though they are able to successfully control the overactive immune system response and bring down the inflammation caused by the disease.
Drugs used to treat the disease include NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and other immune-suppressing drugs. There are also treatments that are used to relieve pain, swelling, fatigue and rashes that can be caused by autoimmune diseases. Generally, eating a well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise tend to help a person suffering from an autoimmune disease feel better.
Common Types Of Autoimmune Conditions
There are well over 80 different autoimmune diseases, but here are some of the most common, widely known conditions:
- Type 1 Diabetes: in this disease, the immune system attacks the pancreas, which normally produces insulin, a hormone that helps regulate blood sugar. Since it’s being attacked, the pancreas is less able to regulate the blood sugar, which results in damaged blood vessels and other organs, including the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): with this disease, the immune system attacks the body’s joints. This tends to result in redness, warmth, soreness and stiffness, all within the joints of the body.
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS): with this disease, the myelin sheath (the protective coating surrounding your nerve cells) is damaged. This affects the message transmission between the body and brain, leading to symptoms of numbness, weakness, balance difficulty and issues with walking. The disease progresses at different rates of severity, though 50% of people who contract MS will need assistance walking within 15 years of the disease onset.
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (Lupus): this disease was first thought to be a skin irritation since it produces a rash. However, it has since been discovered that it affects many organs, including the kidneys, brain, heart and joints.
- Celiac Disease: those with this disease are unable to consume gluten, which is a protein specifically found in wheat, rye and other grain food products. This is because when gluten enters the intestine, the immune system targets and attacks it, causing inflammation. Now, many people have a “gluten sensitivity,” which is not an autoimmune disease, but it can have many similar symptoms. Celiac disease affects about 1% of Americans.
Risk Factors For Autoimmune Disease
It is clear that autoimmune diseases are able to affect people of all genders, races, ages and sizes, but there is an increased risk in certain scenarios. Consider the following risk factors:
- Age: young to middle-aged
- Gender: female
- Ethnicity: African American, American Indian, Hispanic American
- Family history of autoimmune disorders
- Exposure to certain medications (procainamide or hydrolyzine) or medals (mercury, gold, silver)
- Previous infections
Symptoms Of Autoimmune Conditions
Many symptoms of an autoimmune disease vary, though some begin similarly with symptoms of the following: fatigue, aches in muscles, swelling, redness, low-grade fever, difficulty concentrating, numbness of the body, tingling in hands and feet, hair loss and skin rashes.
It’s important to note that individual diseases have their own unique symptoms and should be additionally considered.
What Type Of Doctor Treats Autoimmune Conditions?
Due to the fact that there are many different types of autoimmune disease, there are also many different types of doctors who treat these diseases. The following are just a few options you may come across:
- Neurologist: this is a doctor that treats nerve problems, specifically multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis.
- Hematologist: this is a doctor that treats blood diseases.
- Gastroenterologist: this is a doctor who treats issues in the digestive system, such as inflammatory bowel disease, which is an autoimmune disease.
- Endocrinologist: this is a doctor who treats gland and hormone issues such as diabetes.
Have any additional questions regarding autoimmune diseases? Reach out and let us know, we would love to help support you however we can.