Autoimmune disorders describe a type of medical condition that results from the immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue in a person's body.
The immune system's white blood cells (WBCs) normally protect the body from harmful substances, such as bacteria, viruses, toxins, or cancerous cells. These foreign substances are called "antigens". When the antigens come into contact with the immune system, they trigger an immune response and the production of antibodies that destroy the antigen.
In a person with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system develops an immune reaction against normal tissue. For instance, the immune cells might attack the cartilage in the joint leading to rheumatoid arthritis. Or they may attack the myelin tissue surrounding nerve cells, leading to multiple sclerosis.
It is not known what causes the immune system to attack healthy tissue. One theory is that an infection or exposure to certain chemicals might trigger the immune system to identify normal tissue as an antigen. This may be more likely to occur in people who have inherited genes that predispose them to develop autoimmune disorders.
There are more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders, including the following:
- Type I diabetes
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Myasthenia gravis
- Hashimoto's thyroiditis (low thyroid)
- Grave's disease (high thyroid)
- Pernicious anemia
- Addison's disease
- Sjogren syndrome
- Reactive arthritis
The symptoms experienced by a person with an autoimmune disease depends primarily on the tissue being affected.
The diagnosis of an autoimmune disorder depends primarily on the symptoms reported and a complete physical exam.
Diagnostic tests may also be performed.
The erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or C-reactive protein (CRP) tests provide a non-specific measure of the amount of inflammation triggered by the immune system.
Additional tests may be performed to diagnose a specific type of autoimmune disorder. For instance, a rheumatoid factor (RF) test may be performed in the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.
The treatment prescribed by your doctor depends on the specific autoimmune disease that has been diagnosed and your present symptoms.
The general goal of treatment is to reduce symptoms and control the immune system while maintaining it's ability to fight disease. (Completely suppressing the immune system makes someone more susceptible to other illnesses).
Immunosuppressive medications (immunosuppressants) may be prescribed to control or reduce the immune system's response. These include corticosteroids (prednisone), cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, or tacrolimus.
Newer biologic medications have become available in recent years that are designed to control specific portions of the immune system.
People with autoimmune disorders that affect the bones, joints, or muscles may need help with movement or other functions.
Most autoimmune disorders are chronic, meaning that they last many years or the rest of one's life. However, the symptoms may come and go. The sudden development of symptoms after periods of relatively few symptoms is called a "flare-up" or "flare".
Most autoimmune disorders can be effectively controlled with medications and a comprehensive treatment plan.
© 2011 Vivacare. Last updated April 8, 2011.
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Autoimmune Disorders (Medline Plus) (link to NIH)
- Support & Research Groups
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (link to AARDA)
- En Espanol
Trastornos autoinmunitarios (link to NIH)