Anyone living with an autoimmune disease knows how difficult it can be but with enough support from loved ones, it is possible to live a normal life.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on March 19, 2020. It has since been updated.
An autoimmune disorder is one where the body's immune system attacks and damages the healthy body tissue by mistake. When the immune system is healthy, it attacks infections and diseases and protects us from them. In an autoimmune disease, our healthy cells, tissues, and organs get affected. It can weaken body functions and in some cases, be life-threatening too, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, ranging from common to rare.
Common autoimmune diseases include thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes, as per Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy. The less common ones are lupus erythematosus (SLE), also known as lupus, and vasculitis disorders (inflammation of blood vessels). Some of them affect only one organ while others, like lupus, affect the entire body.
These diseases affect more than 24 million people in the United States, but sometimes, people suffer for years before a diagnosis is made, according to NIEHS. A scientific review, Updated assessment of the prevalence, spectrum, and case definition of autoimmune disease, said that women are affected by autoimmune diseases at a rate of about 2 to 1 compared to men — 6.4% of women vs. 2.7% of men. They often begin during a female's childbearing years. Some autoimmune diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus, run in families. Not every family member will get it but it makes them more susceptible to autoimmune diseases.
"There’s usually no single test to diagnose autoimmune disease. You have to have certain symptoms combined with specific blood markers and in some cases, even a tissue biopsy. It’s not just one factor," said Dr Ana-Maria Orbai, M.H.S., a rheumatologist at the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.
The early symptoms of many of them are similar:
> Achy muscles
> Swelling and redness
> Low-grade fever
> Trouble concentrating
> Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
> Hair loss
> Skin rashes
Common autoimmune diseases:
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the area in which the immune system attacks are the joints. The symptoms include redness, warmth, soreness, and stiffness in the joints. More rarely, it affects the lungs, skin, and eyes. While Osteoarthritis affects people as they get older, RA can affect people as early as their 30s or even sooner. It causes inflammation in the tissues and joints and is a long-term disease, according to Medlineplus.
Normally, dead skin cells are shed when they are no longer needed but this autoimmune condition causes skin cells to multiply too fast. This leads to extra build-up and causes inflamed red patches. Mostly, these red patches also have silver-white scales of plaque on the skin. Almost 30% of people with this condition also develop other symptoms, like swelling, stiffness, and pain in their joints. This form of the disease is called psoriatic arthritis.
This disease harms the myelin sheath, a protective coating that surrounds nerve cells, in the central nervous system. With damage to the myelin sheath, there is a slowing of the transmission speed of messages between the brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body. This can cause symptoms like numbness, weakness, balance issues, and can cause difficulty in walking, according to Healthline. There are many forms and rates at which this disease progresses. As per a 2012 review on MS, almost 50% of people with MS need some aid with walking within 15 years of the start of the disease.
This is a chronic disease and has phases, where there are bad to mild periods. Most people with this disease are able to live a normal life with treatment. As per the Lupus Foundation of America, as many as 1.5 million Americans are living with diagnosed lupus. The symptoms for this include severe fatigue, joint pain, joint swelling, headaches, a rash on the cheeks and nose, which is called a "butterfly rash", hair loss, anemia, and blood-clotting problems.
Our pancreas produces insulin, which is necessary for regulating blood sugar levels. However, if someone has type 1 diabetes mellitus, their immune system is compromised and it attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. And, when blood sugar levels are not controlled it can damage blood vessels, organs, like the heart, kidneys, eyes, and nerves.