What to Know About Autoimmune Diseases

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were rising cases of autoimmune diseases. It’s estimated that more than 23.5 million Americans are affected by autoimmune disorders, and they’re leading causes of disability and death.

There appear to be some links between testing positive for COVID-19 and later autoimmune symptoms as well, which is alarming to medical professionals.

It’s possible that in the coming years, rates of autoimmune disorders and immune dysfunction could rise even more rapidly.

The following is an overview of what to know about these disorders.

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune condition is one in which your body or, more precisely, your immune system attacks your tissue and organs.

Typically, your immune system safeguards against viruses and bacteria. When there is a foreign invader that your immune system senses, it sends out cells to fight that invader.

In normal immune function, your body can tell the difference between your own cells and foreign cells.

When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system might attack your skin or joints, for example, as a foreign invader. Then, autoantibodies are released. These are proteins.

In some autoimmune disorders, only a single organ is affected, and in others, the whole body is.

Certain groups of people may be more at risk of developing an autoimmune disorder than others. For example, women get these disorders at a rate of around 2 to 1 compared to men.

Certain ethnic groups are also more affected. Lupus, for example, affects more African American and Hispanic people than Caucasians.

There are genetic components to many autoimmune disorders, including lupus and multiple sclerosis.

Since the rates of these diseases are going up, environmental factors are suspected of playing a role, as is the standard Western diet. The Western diet is high in sugar, unhealthy fats, and very processed foods.

What Are the Most Common Autoimmune Diseases?

While there are dozens of disorders that are considered autoimmune, some of the more common include:

  • Type 1 diabetes causes your immune system to attack and then destroy the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. If you have type 1 diabetes and uncontrolled high blood pressure, it can lead to blood vessel and organ damage.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis causes the immune system to attack the joints, and it leads to warmth, stiffness, and soreness of the joints. RA can start earlier in life than osteoarthritis, which more commonly affects older people.
  • Our skin cells normally grow, and then we shed them when we don’t need them anymore. Psoriasis can cause skin cells to multiply too fast. The extra cells then build-up, leading to inflamed, red patches and skin plaque. Around 30% of people with psoriasis also then develop pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints, known as psoriatic arthritis.
  • Multiple sclerosis or MS damages the protective coating around the nerve cells, which is known as the myelin sheath. When there’s damage to the myelin sheath, it slows the speed at which messages are transmitted between your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body. MS can lead to problems with balance and walking, numbness and weakness.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE is an autoimmune condition that can affect many organs, including the kidneys, joints, brain, and heart. Joint pain, rashes, and fatigue are common symptoms of SLE.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease or IBD can cause inflammation in the lining of the walls of the intestines. There are two types of IBD affecting different parts of the GI tract. Crohn’s can inflame any area of your GI tract, while ulcerative colitis affects the colon and rectum lining.
  • With Addison’s disease, the adrenal glands are affected. The adrenal glands produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone, and androgen hormones. If you have too little cortisol, it affects how your body uses and stores sugars and carbohydrates. Symptoms include weight loss, low blood sugar, fatigue, and weakness.
  • Graves’ disease leads the body to attack the thyroid gland. Then, as a result, it produces too many thyroid hormones. You might have weight loss, nervousness, a rapid heartbeat, and heat intolerance with Graves’ disease, as well as a condition known as exophthalmos which causes bulging eyes.
  • Sjogren’s syndrome symptoms include dry mouth and eyes, and it can also affect the skin and joints.
  • When someone has Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the thyroid hormone production is slowed, and then that leads to a deficiency. Symptoms include fatigue, cold sensitivity, and weight gain.
  • Myasthenia gravis affects nerve impulses that allow the brain to control the muscles. Symptoms include muscle weakness and issues with swallowing and eyelid opening.
  • If a person is diagnosed with autoimmune vasculitis, their immune system attacks the blood vessels. The resulting inflammation narrows veins and arteries, so less blood can flow through.
  • Celiac disease means that someone can’t have foods with gluten. If a person has Celiac disease and they consume gluten, the immune system attacks the gastrointestinal tract, leading to inflammation.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases

While each type of autoimmune disorder can have its own symptoms, there is often quite a bit of overlap.

Symptoms that are common include fatigue, muscle and joint pain, swelling, and redness. Low-grade fever, brain fog, numbness or tingling in the hands and feet, rashes, and hair loss are also often shared symptoms between the disorders.

When someone is experiencing symptoms, it’s a flare-up, and when the symptoms aren’t occurring, it’s known as remission.

What Tests Are Done?

It’s complex and can take a long time to diagnose autoimmune diseases. In fact, it can take five years or more in many cases. There isn’t one specific test for these disorders, but there are blood tests that can show whether or not you’re experiencing an inflammatory process.

Some of the tests a doctor might recommend include:

  • C-reactive protein or CRP: This test measures the levels of a protein produced by the liver and released into the bloodstream in response to inflammation. When someone has changes in their CRP levels, it could indicate active inflammation or chronic conditions. More than 10.0 mg/dL is considered a significant elevation.
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate or ESR: An ESR test measures how fast red blood cells, which are erythrocytes, collect at the bottom of a test tube with a blood sample. Usually, these cells settle slowly, but when they settle faster than normal, it can indicate inflammation.
  • Antinuclear antibodies (ANA): Antibodies, as mentioned, are a protein. Your immune system makes antibodies to fight viruses and bacteria. However, if an antibody attacks your cells instead, it’s called antinuclear. These tests are most often used for the diagnosis of SLE. The presence of ANA doesn’t confirm that someone has ANA, but not having ANA makes the diagnosis a lot less likely.
  • Ferritin: This protein stores iron inside your cells until your body needs to use it. High ferritin levels can be a sign of inflammation.
  • Rheumatoid factor (RF): RF checks for the presence of a protein called the rheumatoid factor. The protein is produced by the immune system, and it can attack healthy joints and glands. It’s most often used for the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis.

What Types of Doctors Treat Autoimmune Diseases?

Since autoimmune disorders are complex, there may be multiple doctors who provide input and treatment. The type of doctor someone sees can also depend on the specific disorder they have.

A rheumatologist treats joint-related disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, as well as autoimmune diseases such as SLE and Sjogren’s.

Gastroenterologists treat diseases related to the GI system like Crohn’s and celiac.

An endocrinologist treats conditions related to the glands, including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. A dermatologist plays a role in treating conditions related to the skin.

Treatment for Autoimmune Diseases

There are a lot of types of medicines that can be used to treat autoimmune diseases. The medications a doctor might recommend can vary depending on the condition, the symptoms, and the severity.

The goal of treatment can include symptom relief and suppressing the immune system.

When someone takes a drug that suppresses the immune system, they can get the disease process under control and protect the organs. For example, if someone has lupus, there are immune-suppressing drugs that can help control inflammation and keep them working properly.

Some treatments aim to help the body when it can’t make certain substances on its own. For example, thyroid disease and diabetes affect your body’s ability to make substances it needs for proper function. Thyroid hormone replacement will help restore your thyroid hormone levels if you have an underactive thyroid.

There are also many treatments for specific symptoms. For example, there are over-the-counter and prescription medicines that can help with pain and swelling, fatigue, rashes, and depression associated with autoimmune disorders.

Finally, a doctor or health care provider might recommend lifestyle changes to someone with an autoimmune disease, like making changes in your diet to reduce sugar and processed foods, cutting down on alcohol, or getting more exercise.

There aren’t necessarily cures for autoimmune diseases, but there are many ways to get them under control and improve quality of life while mitigating symptoms or eliminating them altogether.

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