What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakes its own healthy cells for harmful foreign ones and attacks them. This can result in destruction of healthy tissues, changes in the way organs normally function, and abnormal growth of organs. Autoimmune diseases are extremely common. According to the National Institutes of Health, there are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases affecting between 14.7 and 23.5 million people in the United States, and autoimmune disorders are becoming more prevalent every year (Source: NIH).

Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any type of tissue, structure, function or system of the body, including the skin, joints, brain, glands, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, and digestive tract.

Some of the more commonly known autoimmune diseases include the following:

  • Addison's disease is a condition in which the adrenal glands are damaged and unable to make certain hormones, including stress hormones and hormones required for normal sexual development.

  • Autoimmune hepatitis is a condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy liver cells.

  • Celiac disease is a severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage.

  • Chronic Lyme disease is an inflammatory bacterial disease spread by ticks that can lead to an autoimmune response in the body.

  • Graves’ disease is a type of hyperthyroidism in which the thyroid gland makes an excessive amount of thyroid hormone.

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the peripheral nervous system.

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is a type of hypothyroidism in which the thyroid gland does not make a sufficient amount of thyroid hormone.

  • Inflammatory bowel disease is a group of disorders that includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

  • Multiple sclerosis is a disease process in the brain and spinal cord that causes weakness, coordination and balance difficulties, and other problems.

  • Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the synovial membrane lining the joints, leading to widespread inflammation.

  • Sjogren’s syndrome is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks moisture-producing glands of the body.

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly known as lupus, is a disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells and tissues, including the joints.

  • Type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease in which the pancreas produces too little or no insulin, so the body cannot properly process sugar.

Anyone can develop an autoimmune disease including infants, children, adolescents, and adults of all ages, in any geographic area or ethnicity and at any socioeconomic level. In addition, one person can have multiple autoimmune diseases at a time, such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune hepatitis. In fact, you are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease if you had an autoimmune disease in the past.

Autoimmune diseases tend to occur much more frequently in women. For example, more than 85 percent of people with certain autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, thyroiditis, and Sjogren’s syndrome, are women, according to the National Institutes of Health (Source: NIH). 

Most autoimmune diseases are not preventable or curable. They are often inherited or develop due to unforeseeable environmental factors. Prompt diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications and improve the quality of life of affected individuals.

In some cases, autoimmune diseases can cause serious and even life-threatening symptoms or complications. Early diagnosis and treatment can reduce or prevent complications. Seek prompt medical care if you have unexplained symptoms, such as ongoing fatigue, vomiting, weight gain, lightheadedness, fever, or any other symptoms that concern you.

Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have chest pain or palpitations, difficulty breathing, a lack of urination, severe pain, high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit), confusion, an unexplained change in consciousness or alertness, or unusual and persistent bleeding.


What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

Symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary widely depending on the type of disease and the individual case. Some autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, may have no noticeable symptoms or vague symptoms early in the disease process.

Symptoms of other autoimmune diseases can greatly impact peoples’ lives. For example, multiple sclerosis can cause paralysis and loss of eyesi... Read more about autoimmune diseasessymptoms


What causes autoimmune diseases?

A normal, healthy immune system identifies potentially harmful foreign substances in your body, such as viruses, bacteria and cancer cells. It then attempts to eliminate them with antibodies. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system mistakes the body’s own healthy cells and tissues for harmful substances and attacks them with antibodies known as autoantibodies. This can result in destru... Read more about autoimmune diseasescauses


How are autoimmune diseases treated?

Most autoimmune diseases are not preventable or curable. They are often linked to genetic factors or develop due to unknown environmental factors, such as medications or prior viral infections. However, prompt treatment of autoimmune diseases can help reduce or delay the onset of serious complications in people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.

Treatment plans vary depending o... Read more about autoimmune diseasestreatments

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Aug 9, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2014 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

This Article is Filed Under: Allergies and the Immune System