Worried you could be suffering with an autoimmune disease? Whilst autoimmune diseases are hard to diagnose, there are some signs and symptoms to look out for, and some effective treatments to help manage your symptoms. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is an autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease is a condition where your immune system mistakenly attacks your body’s healthy cells, and instead of attacking bacteria, viruses or other sources of infection, it attacks healthy organs and tissues, making you more vulnerable to infection.
Why does your immune system start attacking your body?
Your immune system acts a guard that fights against germs like bacteria and viruses. It’s your body’s natural defence against infection. It protects your body by detecting these harmful substances, or foreign invaders, and attacking them at the source. It does this by triggering an immune response as soon as these germs enter the body. Your immune system then releases an army of fighter cells to attack and kill these harmful germs, and prevent them from causing further illness or infection.
Your immune system can usually tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells, but if you have an autoimmune disease, it mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. Instead of fighting infections (which is what your immune system is supposed to do), it attacks the healthy cells, just like it does with germs, and causes damage to the body’s own tissues.
What causes an autoimmune disease?
Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes autoimmune diseases to develop, although the majority of people who have an autoimmune disorder have a genetic predisposition, meaning they tend to be passed down in families. They might not necessarily inherit the same illness, but they inherit a susceptibility to an autoimmune condition.
An environmental factor such as an infection, stress, medication, diet or even exposure to chemicals or ultraviolet radiation, can then trigger the symptoms of the autoimmune disease.
Diet, gender and ethnicity have also been linked autoimmune diseases.
Researchers suggest that some of these factors can increase your risk:
Genetics — autoimmune disorders seem to run in families. If you have relatives with an autoimmune disease, then you’re more likely to develop a condition yourself. Although family members can be affected by different disorders. e.g. one person may have diabetes, while another has rheumatoid arthritis. Genetics alone are not enough to trigger an autoimmune reaction, external factors would also play a part.
Your sex — 78% of people affected by autoimmune diseases are women. They also tend to strike more during childbearing years. Some disorders seem to be affected by major hormonal changes such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause.
Environmental factors — genetic predisposition accounts for approximately 30% of autoimmune diseases, but it’s possible that the remaining 70% may be caused by environmental factors including:
Diet — research in this area is ongoing, but it’s been suggested that a diet rich in high-fat, high-sugar, and highly processed foods can cause obesity, disruption in the gut microbiome and inflammation, all of which could possibly set off an autoimmune response. Obesity actually sends the body into a chronic state of low-grade inflammation, which can threaten an otherwise healthy immune response.
Exposure to toxic chemicals — toxic chemicals such a smoking, pesticides, or exposure to other toxins including air pollutants, ultraviolet radiation or organic solvents, can impact the immune system and cause an inflammatory response.
- Infection — some disorders seem to be triggered or worsened by particular infections. Early exposure to viruses can interact with your genetics; meaning they can turn on certain genes that impact the immune system’s ability to differentiate between self and non-self, thus triggering an autoimmune reaction.
What are the most common autoimmune diseases?
There are around 80 different autoimmune disorders, and they range in severity from mild to disabling, depending on which part of the body is under attack.
Some autoimmune diseases target only one organ. Type 1 diabetes, for example, damages the pancreas, whereas other illnesses, like systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), affect the whole body.
Autoimmune disorders can in fact, affect nearly every organ and system of the body.
The most common autoimmune disorders include:
Type 1 diabetes — the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas (you need insulin to regulate your blood sugar levels.) Symptoms include thirst, hunger, frequent urination and an increased susceptibility to infection.
Coeliac disease — the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten (found in wheat and other grains) and damages the lining of the small intestine (bowel). This prevents proper absorption of food nutrients, and causes flatulence, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis — when the immune system attacks the joints. Bone and cartilage become damaged causing tender, swollen and stiff joints.
Psoriasis — a skin disease that causes thick, red, scaly patches of skin. Psoriasis is the result of a sped-up skin production process. The immune system activity stimulates skin cells (blood cells called T-cells) to reproduce rapidly, and collect in the skin.
Inflammatory bowel disease – when the immune system attacks the lining of the intestine, resulting in diarrhoea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever and weight loss. Forms of IBS include ulcerative colitis and possibly, Crohn's disease.
Graves' disease — when the immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland to release excess amounts of thyroid hormone into the blood. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, known as metabolism. Symptoms include weight loss, elevated heart rate, anxiety and diarrhoea.
Multiple sclerosis — when the immune system attacks nerve cells. Depending on which part of the nervous system is affected, symptoms can include numbness, muscle weakness, paralysis, vision impairment, poor coordination, and, in some cases, cognitive difficulties.
- Systematic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — people with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to connective tissues throughout the body. It can strike any organ system of the body, including (most commonly) heart, lungs, blood cells, muscles, nerves and kidneys. Symptoms include joint inflammation, fever, fatigue, weight loss and a characteristic facial rash.
What are the symptoms to look out for? with autoimmune diseases?
Whist there is no one set of symptoms to look out for (each autoimmune disease will present specific set of symptoms, depending on which part of the body is affected), there are some common recurring symptoms that could indicate you are suffering with an autoimmune condition. These can include:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Skin problems
- Abdominal pain or digestive issues
- Recurring fever
- Swollen glands
Most people will experience some of these symptoms for long periods of time before seeking further help and diagnosis. A diagnosis can, however, prove difficult with these types of illnesses as some symptoms, such as feeling tired and run down, are common symptoms felt by the majority of adults. These symptoms also, in many cases, come and go, so they can often go undetected.
How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?
There is no single test that can determine an accurate diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. Instead, doctors will rely on a combination of tests, a review of your symptoms and a physical examination to diagnose you.
Blood tests that look for autoantibodies can help doctors diagnose these types of conditions. They might also arrange an x-ray, MRI or biopsy to investigate further.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms above on a regular basis, and they are causing you concern, visit your doctor to seek further advice. They will investigate your symptoms more closely, examine you and ask you about your general health.
Depending on your condition, your doctor might also refer you to a specialist for further investigation or for further advice on possible treatment options.
What are the treatments for autoimmune diseases?
Whilst there is generally no cure for autoimmune diseases, the symptoms of autoimmune disorders can be successfully managed using a number of medications and treatments. These work to control the overactive immune response and bring down inflammation, or at least reduce pain and inflammation.
The main aims of treatments for autoimmune diseases are to relieve symptoms, minimise organ and tissue damage and preserve organ function.
Some of these medications include:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, naproxen and diclofenac to reduce inflammation and pain
Nurofen Zavance Tablets 96 Tablets
Naprogesic 275mg Tablets 12 Pack
Nurofen Quickzorb 24 Caplets
- pain killers such as paracetamol or codeine
Panadol Extra 20 Caplets
Panamax 500mg 100 Tablets
Maxigesic Tablet 12 Pack
immunosuppressive medications — a class of drugs that suppress, or reduce, the strength of the body’s immune system
replacement of end organ functions (such as insulin in diabetes and thyroxine in autoimmune thyroid disease)
corticosteroids to reduce inflammation (for rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and topical creams for psoriasis)
- physical therapy to increase mobility
Voltaren Emulgel No Mess 150g
BioCeuticals Ultra Muscleze Powder 360g
Dencorub Penetrating Arthritis Cream 100g
- gluten-free diet for coeliacs
Other lifestyle factors can often help to minimise symptoms. These include:
- Eating a healthy diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Getting plenty of sleep
Blackmores Valerian Forte 60 Tablets
VITAL All-In-One Vitamin 300g
BioCeuticals Sleep Complex 60 Tablets
- Reducing stress
Seremind Lavender Oil 28 Capsules
Blackmores Executive B Stress 160 Tablets
Brauer Calm Oral Liquid 200mL
- Balancing rest and exercise
For some people, autoimmune diseases can be mild and easily manageable, while others will need to invest a lot of time and care in managing their condition. The good news is most people who suffer with autoimmune conditions, with the right treatment plan, are able to live full and enjoyable lives.
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