Our immune system is our main line of defence against harmful microorganisms and diseases. It constantly works to keep us safe from infections. However, autoimmune diseases occur when our immune system mistakenly starts to attack our own cells instead of foreign substances.
There are around 100 types of autoimmune diseases as per the National Institute of Health (NIH), USA. Some of the more common ones include rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis and lupus.
The exact cause of these diseases is not really known so far. Some experts say that microbes (bacteria, viruses etc) may trigger these diseases. Some genes also make you more prone to autoimmune diseases.
Now, a recent study done at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, Australia, suggests that the secret to autoimmune diseases may lie in the way various genes express in our childhood and the variations in these genes may be what predispose a person to developing autoimmune diseases later in life.
Here is all you need to know about autoimmune diseases.
What are autoimmune diseases?
Autoimmune diseases occur when our immune system targets healthy tissue. The human immune system is highly specific in that it can recognise harmful substances (antigens) and make antibodies that can specifically eliminate the threat without harming body tissues or cells.
However, when a person has autoimmune disease, their body starts to make auto antibodies - antibodies against their own tissues.
Autoimmune disease can affect any tissue of the body including blood (lupus), skin (psoriasis), muscles (myositis), joints (rheumatoid arthritis), endocrine glands like the thyroid (autoimmune thyroiditis) and the pancreas (diabetes type 1). It can lead to organ damage, changes in the functioning of an organ and abnormal growth of an organ.
What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?
Each autoimmune disease has its own particular symptoms depending on what organ it is affecting. However, all autoimmune diseases have the following set of symptoms:
The symptoms of autoimmune diseases do not show up at the same age for everyone. They can show up in childhood, adulthood or later in life. For example, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms usually show up between the ages of 30 and 55 while most patients with lupus get their symptoms between 16 and 55 years of age.
Who is at risk of autoimmune diseases?
Genetic can certainly play a role. If someone in your family has an autoimmune disease, you are more likely to develop one. However, certain environmental factors may work in conjunction with genetic factors to trigger autoimmune diseases.
Women are more prone to autoimmune diseases than men due to the presence of two X chromosomes. Major changes in sex hormones like pregnancy and menopause may have a role in the development of autoimmune diseases.
How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed and treated?
It is difficult to diagnose an autoimmune disease. A doctor will take your complete medical history, do physical examinations, and conduct certain tests like blood tests for the presence of autoantibodies in your body to check for the presence of autoimmune diseases.
There is no cure for autoimmune diseases. Doctors suggest lifestyle modification and prescribe medications for symptomatic relief. These include painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and immunosuppressants. Physical therapy may be given to patients who develop issues with mobility (such as with joint problems) and supplements are given to those who develop a deficiency of certain substances (such as insulin in type 1 diabetes) as a result of the disease.
For more information, read our article on Autoimmune disease
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