Immune System Disorders and Diseases

The immune system is responsible for protecting the body against viruses, bacterias, and other foreign cells that threaten the body. When the immune system doesn't work as it should, it's called an immune system disorder. There are different ways that this can happen: Some people are born with a weak immune system, while others naturally have an overactive immune system, where it reacts to substances that are normally harmless like in the case of asthma and eczema.

Diseases can also affect the immune system by weakening it or causing it to mistakenly attack the body's healthy cells like in autoimmune diseases. There are over 100 types of autoimmune diseases. They predominantly affect women: Approximately 80% of all people diagnosed with these conditions are female.

The lymph, or lymphatic, system is a major part of the immune system. It's a network of lymph nodes, which are clumps of immune system cells, and lymphatic vessels, which carry a clear fluid that contains tissue fluid, waste products, and immune system cells called lymph. These cells are white blood cells, and they trap viruses, bacteria, and other invaders.

autoimmune disease
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Immune System Disorders: Primary and Acquired Immune Deficiency

Primary immune deficiency disorders are present at birth. They cause a weakened immune system, and are often inherited. These disorders are rare and can be triggered by a single gene defect. The diagnoses can be made months after birth or many years later. There are more than 200 different forms of primary immune deficiency disorders, and they affect approximately 500,000 people in the United States.

People with primary immune deficiency disorders have a poor response to vaccines and an increased risk of developing autoimmune disorders and malignancy. Another example is the severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), also called bubble boy disease. Children with this condition are missing important white blood cells.

Acquired immune deficiency refers to diseases that people can get later in life that weaken their immune systems. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) caused by an HIV infection is one example. It causes severe damage to the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to infections.

Overactive Immune System Examples

An overactive immune system will react even to harmless elements (allergens) like dust, mold, pollen, and foods. Your body can't tell the difference between your healthy, normal cells and invaders.

One of the most common conditions that cause an overactive immune system is asthma. The response in the lungs can lead to wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. Eczema (an allergen causes itchy skin) and hay fever (seasonal allergies also known as allergic rhinitis) are other examples. 

Common Autoimmune Diseases and Symptoms

Autoimmune diseases cause the immune system to attack healthy cells in the body. They are chronic conditions and cannot be cured. The cause is unknown. It has been hypothesized that they are caused by a combination of a person’s genes and something in the environment that triggers those genes. Different autoimmune diseases affect the body in different ways and cause different symptoms.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is caused by an autoimmune process in the body that mistakenly destroys the insulin-producing cells or beta cells, and occurs in genetically predisposed individuals. It's found in 5% to 10% of people. It can appear at any stage of life, but it is the most common type of diabetes in children, teens, and young adults.

Symptoms include:

  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive urination
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Blurred vision
  • Slower wound healing
  • Mood swings

Children and teenagers with type 1 diabetes are more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases like thyroid disorders or celiac disease. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis

The immune system of people with rheumatoid arthritis will attack healthy cells, resulting in inflammation in different parts of the body. It commonly affects joints in the hands, wrists, and knees. It can happen at any age, but it is more common between 45 and 60 years old. Women have higher chances of developing the disease and experiencing worse pain from the condition.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain or aching in more than one joint
  • Stiffness in more than one joint
  • Tenderness and swelling in more than one joint
  • The same symptoms on both sides of the body (such as in both hands or both knees)
  • Weight loss
  • Fever
  • Fatigue or tiredness
  • Weakness

Psoriatic Arthritis

Psoriatic arthritis (PsA) is a form of chronic inflammatory arthritis that is present in nearly 30% of people who have psoriasis. It can also affect people without psoriasis. The disease affects the joints and skin, mainly large joints like lower extremities, distal joints of the fingers and toes, the back, and sacroiliac joints of the pelvis. People often develop this condition when between 30 and 50 years old. For many people with psoriasis, PsA starts about 10 years after psoriasis develops.

In some people, it is mild with occasional flare-ups. In others, PsA can be continuous and cause joint damage if it is not treated. 

The most common symptoms are:

  • Joint pain and stiffness 
  • Swelling of the fingers and toes 
  • Skin lesions 
  • Nail deformity 
  • Back pain

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an inflammatory demyelinating disease of the central nervous system, and can affect the brain, optic nerves, and spinal cord. This condition damages the myelin sheath, the material that surrounds and protects nerve cells. This damage slows down or blocks messages between the brain and body.

Although it is not inherited, people with a family history of this condition are more susceptible to the disease. The first signs of MS often appear between 20 and 40 years old. Multiple sclerosis affects women more than men.

MS symptoms often include:

  • Vision problems such as blurred or double vision, or optic neuritis, which causes pain with eye movement and a rapid loss of vision
  • Muscle weakness, often in the hands and legs, and muscle stiffness accompanied by painful muscle spasms
  • Tingling, numbness, or pain in the arms, legs, trunk, or face
  • Clumsiness, particularly difficulty staying balanced when walking
  • Bladder control problems
  • Intermittent or more constant dizziness

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus, can affect any organ in the body and encompass a wide spectrum of severity. It can cause mild symptoms, such as skin rash, or life severe complications like heart problems. It tends to run in families, and it affects more men than women. It can also be triggered by medications, viruses, traumas, or ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The most common symptoms of lupus are:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Headaches
  • Butterfly rash on the cheeks and nose
  • Hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Problems with blood-clotting
  • Raynaud's phenomenon

Inflammatory Bowel Disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) refers to a group of disorders that cause chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Two of the most common forms of IBD are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. Approximately 1.5 million people in the United States have either Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Crohn's disease is an illness in which the intestine becomes inflamed and ulcerated (marked with sores). Crohn's disease usually affects the lower part of the small intestine, but it can occur in any part of the large or small intestine, stomach, esophagus, or even the mouth. It is most common between the ages of 15 and 30.

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum. People with this condition have tiny ulcers and small abscesses in their colon and rectum that flare up every so often and cause bloody stools and diarrhea.

Frequently, symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Cramping
  • Persistent diarrhea
  • Bloody stools
  • Lack of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Anemia

Addison's Disease

Addison's disease, also known as adrenal insufficiency, affects the function of the adrenal glands, which are small hormone-producing glands located on top of each kidney. It is a rare disorder that causes the body to produce not enough of certain hormones. Addison’s disease affects 1 in 100,000 people, and affects men and women equally. It runs in the family, and people first notice symptoms between 30 and 50 years old. Diagnosis is often delayed because it is a rare disease and the symptoms are nonspecific and can come and go.

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abnormal menstrual periods
  • Craving for salty food
  • Dehydration
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Irritability
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness when standing up
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low blood glucose
  • Low blood pressure
  • Muscle weakness
  • Nausea
  • Patches of dark skin, especially around scars, skin folds, and joints
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting
  • Worsening fatigue (extreme tiredness)

Graves Disease

Graves disease is an autoimmune disorder that causes hyperthyroidism, or an overactive thyroid. This condition causes your immune system to attack the thyroid and cause it to make more thyroid hormone than your body needs. Excess thyroid hormones can cause a variety of signs and symptoms. Graves disease affects about 1 in 200 people. Women have higher chances of developing the disease. It is the leading cause of hyperthyroidism in the United States.

The condition can trigger many symptoms, including:

  • Weight loss
  • Heart palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Agitation
  • Irritability
  • Insomnia
  • Increased sweating/heat intolerance
  • Shaking hands
  • Diarrhea or frequent bowel movements
  • Increased appetite (sometimes a decrease instead)
  • Thinning hair
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fertility problems
  • Menstrual-cycle changes
  • Dizziness
  • Hypertension (high blood pressure)

Sjögren's Syndrome

Sjögren's syndrome harms the saliva and tears glands, and people with this disease will often complain about the dry mouth and dry eyes. It can also affect the joints, nose, skin, and other body parts that need moisture, including the lungs, kidneys, blood vessels, digestive organs, and nerves. Women who are 40 years old or older are the majority of the patients diagnosed with Sjögren's syndrome. It is estimated that between 400,000 and 3.1 million adults have Sjögren's syndrome. It is sometimes linked to rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Hashimoto's Disease

Hashimoto's disease is a condition that causes an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, and is at least eight times more common in women than men. In this condition, your immune system attacks your thyroid, damaging it so it can't make enough thyroid hormones. Hashimoto’s disease is common and affects about five people in 100 in the United States. It commonly appears between 30 and 50 years, and tends to run in families. People with other autoimmune diseases are also more likely to have this condition.

The most common symptoms are:

  • Fatigue
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Thinning hair
  • Irregular menstrual periods
  • Sudden weight gain
  • Depression
  • Memory problems

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which ingestion of gluten leads the immune system to damage the small intestines. It often affects the absorption of nutrients. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Celiac disease runs in families, and people with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a one-in-10 risk of developing this condition. It can develop at any age.

Frequent symptoms are:

  • Digestive problems
  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Weight loss
  • Constipation
  • Tiredness
  • Unexplained anemia
  • Musculoskeletal problems
  • Blistering skin rash

Autoimmune Disease Factors

Many factors can lead to autoimmune disease: heredity, genetics, and environmental triggers. However, those conditions are prevalent in women. However, there isn't a consensus among researchers yet why women are more vulnerable.

Autoimmune diseases can also be temporary and triggered by different reasons. Common infections, including influenza and mononucleosis, can suppress the immune system.

Diagnostic Tests

It can be challenging to diagnose an autoimmune disease. The initial symptoms tend to be vague or come and go. Patients also tend to experience autoimmune diseases in different ways.

A doctor will look into the patient's history, illnesses that run in the family, and perform a physical exam. If there are signs of an autoimmune disease, the doctor will request more tests. Some standard lab tests to detect an autoimmune disease are a complete blood count (CBC), antinuclear antibody (ANA), and rheumatoid factor.

It isn't easy to diagnose an autoimmune disease. Therefore, it is vital to pay attention to your body and any new symptoms, even if they are not permanent or seem harmless, like a skin rash. Contact your doctor if you experience any new symptoms.

A Word From Verywell 

The journey to diagnose an autoimmune disease can be long and stressful. The symptoms of autoimmune diseases are often nonspecific and periodic. It is therefore important for you to tell your doctor about any new symptoms you are experiencing. Even something that seems harmless like a skin rash can be a manifestation of an autoimmune disease.

Although the condition can't be cured, there are medications that can help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of autoimmune diseases. Early treatment generally leads to better outcomes.

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Article Sources
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