What Are Some Examples of Autoimmune Diseases?

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An autoimmune disease is a disease in which your immune system (which normally attacks bacteria, viruses, and other foreign invaders) targets healthy tissues within the body. This misguided immune system attack leads to inflammation and a variety of symptoms based on which parts of the body are affected. 

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a painful, disabling condition that targets your joints, like your knees, hips, or shoulders. Characteristically, there is more than one joint affected, and there is symmetrical involvement, meaning both joints on each side of the body are targeted. 

While the joints of your hands or feet normally wear with age, the symptoms of RA are different. Instead of just aches, a person experiences swelling, stiffness, and even deformity and dysfunction of the joints that are under attack from the immune system.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis (with anti-inflammatories, DMARDs, and/or biologics) is focused on stopping the inflammation, easing symptoms, and improving daily functioning.

Multiple Sclerosis

Targeting the central nervous system, multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, sometimes crippling disease in which your immune system attacks the protective sheath of nerve fibers. 

As this fatty sheath, called myelin, is destroyed, there is interference in communication between the body and the brain and spinal cord. People with MS may have a variety of symptoms depending on the areas of the central nervous system that are affected. Common symptoms include vision problems, sensory disturbances like numbness and tingling, fatigue, bladder issues, walking abnormalities, and pain.

The cause of MS, like so many other autoimmune diseases, remains unknown. Even so, MS is believed to afflict genetically susceptible persons who experience triggering environmental conditions.

The good news is that MS disease-modifying therapies, while not curable, are changing the face of MS by slowing a person's disease progression down. So, life expectancy and quality of life has continued to improve over time, and the future remains bright. 

Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

When the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed by an autoimmune response, type 1 diabetes mellitus is the result.

Insulin is a hormone used by the body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. When blood sugar, or glucose, levels are too high, damage to kidneys, eyes, blood vessels, and other organs can result.

According to the American Diabetes Association, type 1 diabetes affects about 5 percent of people in the United States with diabetes (so much less common than type 2 diabetes).

In terms of treatment, type 1 diabetes requires lifelong management strategies (like taking daily injections of insulin with a syringe, pen, or pump) to maintain health and avoid physical damage.

It's important to mention that close relatives of a person with type 1 diabetes have a higher risk of developing the disease. Fortunately, research is ongoing to identify preventative strategies for family members at risk.

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, refers to chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. While Crohn's disease may cause inflammation from the mouth to the anus, inflammation in ulcerative colitis only affects the large intestines (called the colon) and the rectum.

Symptoms of the chronic inflammation caused by IBD may include diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloody stools, weight loss, and fatigue.

There are several types of medications used to treat IBD, including corticosteroids and a newer class of drugs called, "biologics." In more severe cases, surgery may be needed to remove damaged areas of the digestive tract.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that affects multiple organs in the body like the skin, joints, and kidneys, causing a variety of symptoms like fatigue, rashes, and pain.

Prevalence is higher in women of childbearing years, but it can affect men or women at any age. SLE is also more common in African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

Treatment of SLE entails lifestyle approaches like sun protection, eating well-balanced meals, and smoking cessation, as well as medications like anti-malarial agents, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressive drugs. 

Psoriasis

Psoriasis occurs when the immune system erroneously sends signals to skin cells to grow too rapidly. There are several forms of psoriasis, the most common one being plaque psoriasis, which is characterized by raised (often itchy) red patches called plaques that form most often on the knees, lower back, scalp, and elbows. 

There are several treatment options for psoriasis, depending on severity, including topical drugs, medications, and light therapy. It is important to screen for, and treat, a related form of arthritis, called psoriatic arthritis.

Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases

Autoimmune thyroid disease refers to destruction, or stimulation, of thyroid tissue by the immune system. There are two types: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroidism) and Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism).

Symptoms of both these conditions are nonspecific and can develop quickly, or over time. Some symptoms of these diseases include nervousness, fatigue, intolerance to cold or heat, changes in hair, and weight gain or loss. The vagaries of symptoms may cause people to delay seeing their doctor, but a diagnosis of thyroid conditions can be made with a clinical examination, blood tests, and imaging tests.

For patients with an underactive thyroid, thyroid hormone replacement medication is used while treatment of a hyperactive thyroid includes lifetime use of antithyroid drugs or destruction of the thyroid gland through surgery or radioactive iodine (RAI) ablation.

A Word From Verywell

With over 80 autoimmune diseases identified to date, researchers are working hard to better understand the "why" behind these self-attacking conditions, in addition to devising new, improved therapies. 

If you or a loved one has an autoimmune disease, continue to gain knowledge and try engaging in healthy lifestyle habits, like eating nutritiously, exercising, and managing your stress well.

View Article Sources
  • American Academy of Dermatology. (2018). Psoriasis. 
  • American Diabetes Association. (n.d.). The Diabetes Advisor. Type 1 Diabetes. 
  • Arthritis Foundation. (n.d.). What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
  • Crohn's and Colitis Foundation. (2014). The Facts About Inflammatory Bowel Diseases. 
  • Maidhof W, Hilas O. Lupus: An overview of the Disease and Management Options. P T. 2012 Apr;37(4):240-46, 249.