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What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

We often read and hear about autoimmune diseases, but if we don’t suffer from one, we may not know exactly what they are. The list is staggering. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association states that 100 diseases, from Addison’s disease to Vitiligo, can be classified as autoimmune.
Other entities, such as the National Institute of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the number at closer to 80. The difference is in substantive epidemiology.
Regardless of the number of specific diseases, around eight percent of the population suffers from an autoimmune disorder with around 78 percent of them affecting women. It’s the third most common category of disease in the United States after cancer and heart disease.
So, what is an autoimmune disease? We understand that our immune system protects our bodies by producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes (types of white blood cells) in response to invading microorganisms such as viruses or bacteria.
“Under normal conditions, an immune response cannot be triggered against the cells of one’s own body,” explains AARDA. “In some cases, however, immune cells make a mistake and attack the very cells that they are meant to protect. This can lead to a variety of autoimmune diseases. They encompass a broad category of related diseases in which the person’s immune system attacks his or her own tissue.”
Despite there being no known cause of an autoimmune disease, there are plenty of theories including bacteria or virus infections, drugs, chemical and/or environmental irritants. You’re also more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease if you have a family history of one. And, add the fact that if you suffer from one disease, you may contract another.
“Often, the first symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches and a low fever,” NIH explains. “The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling. The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when symptoms get better or disappear.
“Treatment depends on the disease, but in most cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation. Sometimes doctors prescribe corticosteroids or other drugs that reduce your immune response,” NIH says.
We obviously don’t have space to look at all of them, so let’s look at some recognizable autoimmune diseases, with descriptions thanks to WebMD.com:
Rheumatoid arthritis. The immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints causing inflammation, swelling and pain.
Systemic lupus erythematosus. People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body.
Inflammatory bowel disease. The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s disease are the two major forms of IBD.
Multiple sclerosis. The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasms.
Type 1 diabetes mellitus. Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Psoriasis. In psoriasis, overactive immune system blood cells called T-cells collect in the skin. The immune system activity stimulates skin cells to reproduce rapidly, producing silvery, scaly plaques on the skin.
Graves’ disease. The immune system produces antibodies that stimulate the thyroid gland to release excess amounts of thyroid hormone into the blood.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Antibodies produced by the immune system attack the thyroid gland, slowly destroying the cells that produce thyroid hormone.
It’s interesting that Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis sound like completely opposite disorders, but each is classified as autoimmune.
Other autoimmune diseases are alopecia areata which is characterized by hair loss; celiac disease in which gluten damages the small intestine; endometriosis which occurs when the tissue that normally lines the uterus grows somewhere else; restless leg syndrome which causes a powerful urge to move your legs, and vitiligo which causes white patches on your skin and can also affect your eyes, mouth and nose.
If you suspect you have an autoimmune disease, your healthcare provider will perform diagnostic tests that will identify the antibodies your body is producing.
Kathy Hubbard is a member of Bonner General Health Foundation Advisory Council. She can be reached at 264-4029 or kathyleehubbard@yahoo.com.

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