Autoimmune Disease

Broad category of ailments can have life-long impacts

Your body’s immune system is the silent, often ignored army that defends you against threats to your health. Whether it’s a cold virus, the flu, or food-borne bacteria, your immune system identifies and then neutralizes foreign invaders that can compromise your health.

Autoimmune disease describes a host of syndromes in which the body’s natural defenses malfunction and attack healthy cells instead of infections.

There are dozens of kinds of autoimmune diseases, ranging from skin conditions like vitiligo and psoriasis to rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and multiple sclerosis.

Not surprisingly, with such a wide range of syndromes, the causes of autoimmune diseases are difficult to isolate and treatments vary widely, depending on the condition.

Autoimmune disease is often linked to specific demographic groups such as children or women or some ethnic groups. Family history often plays a causative role, and women are targeted three times as often as men.

Autoimmunity affects about 50 million Americans, and is considered the fourth leading cause of disability among U.S. women.

What these diseases have in common is their primary symptom: inflammation. Depending on what part of the body is most affected, this can result in swollen joints, muscle pain, weight gain, fatigue or, in the case of skin-based diseases, rashes and itching.

Many autoimmune diseases are chronic, meaning you will live with them for years or even an entire lifetime. Flare-ups are treated in various ways, such as the use of topical steroids and immunosuppressive medications.

For people living with chronic autoimmunity, a vigilant approach to self-care is necessary, and support from both the medical community and the community at large is vital. Dealing with autoimmunity often means managing lifestyle choice carefully and educating yourself and family members about these complex conditions. New research and treatment methods are continuously in development, so it is important that patients keep abreast of issues related to their form of autoimmunity.

To learn more about autoimmune diseases, visit the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, which has up to date information on the latest research, supports, and educational services. For basic research materials, visit the National Library of Medicine’s Medline Plus.