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Understanding Autoimmune Disorders

Tuesday 1 September 2020
Autoimmune Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What Does Autoimmune Mean?

II. The Function of the Immune System

III. Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disorders

IV. General Symptoms

V. Types of Autoimmune Disorders

a. Glandular

b. Skin-related

c. Gastrointestinal

d. Arthritis

e. Blood Disorders

f. Neuromuscular


What Does Autoimmune Mean?

In the U.S. alone, around 23 million people are living with an autoimmune condition. Most people are familiar with the most common autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, but there are many more conditions out there. There are over 80 types of conditions under the umbrella of autoimmune diseases. [1]

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body begins to attack itself by mistake. Most autoimmune diseases are genetic and are passed down from close relatives. They can also occur due to external factors, but the exact causes are unknown. When the immune system attacks the body's cells, tissues, or organs, malfunctions can occur. These conditions produce antibodies that are supposed to fight infections but instead attack places in the body. They can attack more than one part of the body at a time.

The treatment of autoimmune diseases depends on the type, but Glucophage XR (metformin) for type 1 diabetes and Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) for rheumatoid arthritis are common medications. Read on to learn more about the different types of autoimmune diseases and how they may impact a person's life. [2]

a woman lying in a hospital bed

The Function of the Immune System

The immune system is integral in the functioning of the body. It protects the body from outside invaders, which keeps the body healthy and free from illness. The immune system protects you from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other toxins. Of course, the immune system cannot protect against everything, and that's why you occasionally get sick with the common cold or flu. White blood cells called leukocytes are always circulating the body to look for pathogens that may be harmful to the body. White blood cells are formed in the thymus, spleen, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. [3] The two parts of the immune system include:

Innate immune system: The innate immune system is the one in which you are born with. It helps patrol the body for invaders the minute a child is born. When an invader is identified, the immune system goes into action to create cells called phagocytes to surround and overtake the invader.

Acquired immune system: As the name suggests, this part is acquired over time as you grow and develop. Over time, your body produces antibody cells that protect your body from specific pathogens. Antibodies against certain invaders stay in the body, lowering your likelihood of being adversely affected by this invader in the future. Most children receive proper antibodies through immunizations to protect them from harmful diseases. [4]

Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disorders

As discussed earlier, there are several different factors behind the development of an autoimmune disease. Researchers are not able to determine the exact causes of many autoimmune conditions. The following are factors in the development of immune system problems:

Sex: Females are 78 percent more affected by autoimmune diseases than men. Scientists are not completely sure why autoimmune diseases like lupus, Sjogren's syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis are more likely in women. Differences in chromosomes, hormones, and organ vulnerability may lead to a higher prevalence of these conditions in women. [5]

a blonde woman walking in a park

Genetics: Certain autoimmune diseases are often run in families, like lupus and multiple sclerosis. If you have a genetic predisposition to these diseases, then environmental triggers may be more likely to cause autoimmune disease.

Obesity: Obesity is a major risk factor in the development of chronic diseases, especially autoimmune diseases. Over 72 percent of adults are overweight or obese in the U.S., and autoimmune diseases are on the rise. Being overweight can drastically increase your risk of rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. Obesity can send the body into a constant state of low-grade inflammation, further irritating a malfunctioning immune system. [5]

Having an autoimmune disease: If you already have an autoimmune condition, you are at risk of developing more. If you have three or more autoimmune conditions, it is known as Multiple Autoimmune Syndrome (MAS). This occurs in 25 percent of autoimmune patients. [5]

Smoking: Smoking cigarettes can cause many problems with the body, including the immune system. Lupus, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis are all linked to smoking. Being exposed to chemicals can also increase the risk of autoimmune diseases. Pollutants and toxins like crystalline silica, organic solvents, and ultraviolet radiation may also increase your risk. [5]

General Symptoms

Many autoimmune diseases may have similar symptoms. Your symptoms and treatment will be determined if you keep an open dialogue with your doctor. Some common symptoms can include:

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Skin problems
  • Swollen glands
  • Recurring fever
  • Abdominal pain
  • Digestive issues [6]

a close up of light colored skin

Types of Autoimmune Disorders

As mentioned earlier, several different types of autoimmune disorders can affect systems in the body. Each disorder has its symptoms and risk factors. These conditions can inhibit your social life and career, so it is essential to determine your condition properly. 

a. Glandular

Several autoimmune disorders affect glands within the body. Some common conditions include Sjogren syndrome, Addison's disease, and thyroid disease. Sjogren's affects the tear and saliva glands in the mouth, and Addison's targets the adrenal glands. The thyroid gland can lead to Hashimoto's disease, which makes the immune system attack the thyroid. Synthroid (Levothyroxine) can be used to regulate thyroid hormones. [7] 

b. Skin-related

Several diseases can affect normal skin tissue. Autoimmune diseases like scleroderma and dermatomyositis can cause blisters, rashes, scaly patches, and skin lesions. Scleroderma causes hardening and tightening of skin and dermatomyositis also causes skin changes and muscle weakness. Neoral (cyclosporine) can be used to suppress the immune system and improve skin conditions. [8]  

c. Gastrointestinal

The stomach may be affected by a malfunctioning immune response and cause inflammation of the stomach lining. This can result in conditions like Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis. You may also develop Celiac disease, which makes your body unable to process gluten. Your doctor will typically prescribe drugs like Imuran (azathioprine) to treat inflammation. [9]

a diagram of the different parts of the gastrointestinal system

d. Arthritis

People can experience arthritis when the body mistakenly attacks joints. This is known as rheumatoid arthritis and causes redness, inflammation, and pain in affected joints. Doctors can prescribe Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) to treat these symptoms and improve mobility. [10]

e. Blood disorders

Autoimmune disorders can also affect the blood within your body. Disorders like lupus and vasculitis can impair blood cells and cause problems with everyday functioning. Lupus lowers the white blood cell count, leading to anemia (low red blood cells) and affecting the amount of oxygen getting to body tissues. Vasculitis occurs when healthy blood cells attack blood vessels and cause them to narrow or burst. Type 1 diabetes also involves too much glucose in the bloodstream, and Glucophage XR (metformin) can improve this condition's symptoms. [11]

f. Neuromuscular

Those with neuromuscular autoimmune disorders have problems with sensory information getting to the brain, causing voluntary muscle movement issues. These conditions can include myasthenia gravis, multiple sclerosis, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Medications like Gilenya can help treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis. [12] 

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.