What Are the Different Types of Autoimmune Disease?
In order for humans to have optimal health, we need a properly functioning immune system to fight against disease. When something goes awry with the immune system, health problems can manifest in different ways. In the case of an overactive immune system, autoimmune diseases can develop and have a significant impact on a person’s life. Currently, there are more than 24 million people in the U.S. living with a chronic autoimmune disease. If you are one of the millions, or care for someone who is, here is what you need to know about the types of autoimmune disease.
What Is Autoimmune Disease?
In simple terms, autoimmune disease can be described as the body attacking itself. There is an immune system abnormality, usually an overactive immune response, which causes the body to attack its own tissues as if there is no infection. Our immune system is designed to protect us from invasive bacteria and viruses, however in the case of autoimmune disease, the body fails to recognize the difference between foreign pathogens and its own healthy cells.
The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is still being researched and speculated upon. What we know is that the body responds to an unknown trigger, which sends the immune system into overdrive. The immune system begins pumping out antibodies that attack the healthy tissues rather than infections and invasive pathogens.
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
What we do not know at this time is what triggers this response. In some cases, autoimmune diseases are thought to have genetic components. Research has revealed that autoimmune diseases are characterized by multifactorial aetiology. This means that there is a combination of genetic and environmental influences associated with autoimmune diseases. This makes it even more difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of autoimmune disease in any one individual, as each person exhibits differing genetic and environmental factors.
What Are the Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases can affect one specific part of the body. For example, diabetes affects the pancreas. Autoimmune diseases can also be more systemic. For example, systemic lupus, which can affect multiple organs and types of tissue throughout the entire body.
The range of autoimmune diseases and how they effect the body is expansive. With that said, many autoimmune diseases share similar characteristics and present with a set of identifiable symptoms. Autoimmune disease symptoms may include:
- Swelling and inflammation
- Muscle and joint aches
- Numbness and tingling
- Digestive issues
- Low grade fever without any other known cause
- Skin conditions, such as rashes, splotchiness and other signs of inflammation
- Hair loss
- Mental fatigue or “brain fog”
Most Common Types of Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are more common than many people realize. When the conversation turns to autoimmune disease, it generally focuses on a few of the most common autoimmune conditions that are prevalent in society today. However, the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA) lists more than 100 autoimmune diseases on their website, many of which are seldom heard of or recognized as autoimmune disorders. These are known as rare autoimmune diseases. The autoimmune disease list includes:
- Lyme disease
- Restless leg syndrome
- Coxsackie myocarditis
- POEMS syndrome
Then there are the autoimmune diseases that many people are familiar with, mostly because they affect such a large number of people, whether directly or indirectly. Examples of the most common autoimmune diseases include:
In individuals who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system produces antibodies that attack the lining of the joints specifically. This creates an inflammatory response that leads to painful swelling, which if left untreated can eventually cause irreversible joint damage and mobility issues.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
With IBD, the immune system attacks the intestinal lining. Not to be confused with inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS), IBD is a serious disease which can cause intestinal distress, intestinal and rectal bleeding, fever, weight loss, malnutrition and intestinal blockages. There are two types of IBD: Crohn’s Disease and ulcerative colitis.
Type 1 Diabetes
Many people view diabetes as a lifestyle disease, not realizing that in type 1 diabetes, which is unrelated to lifestyle factors, is considered an autoimmune condition. In the case of diabetes, the body produces antibodies that target and attack cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.
Psoriasis is a skin condition marked by itchy, painful plaques on the skin. Psoriasis is not just uncomfortable to deal with physically; it can also affect a person’s self esteem and confidence. In the case of psoriasis, the immune system produces an abundance of T-cells that collect in the skin, causing skin cells to reproduce more rapidly than normal.
Lupus is an autoimmune condition that can affect the body systemically. An overproduction of antibodies attack tissues all throughout the body, with the lungs, kidneys, nerves and joints being among the most affected areas.
Treatment Protocols for Autoimmune Disease
The treatment for autoimmune disease involves working towards controlling the body’s immune response. Depending on the type of autoimmune disease, and the severity, there are a number of different medical approaches that can be considered.
In some cases, the use of corticosteroids can calm inflammation caused by the body’s overactive immune response. Inflammation plays a critical role in the long term effects and impacts of autoimmune disease. A body that experiences chronic inflammation may also be more at risk of developing other inflammatory diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
There are also biological drugs that are used in the treatment of autoimmune diseases. These medications work by suppressing the body’s immune response, thereby reducing inflammation. Biological medications have been shown to be incredibly effective in many cases, however they do come with some more serious known side effects. It’s important to have a discussion with your doctor about the best pathway for treatment and to weigh the pros and cons of each treatment method for your individual case.
Living With Autoimmune Disease
For many individuals living with autoimmune disease, medications are not the only approach to relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. Lifestyle adjustments, including nutritional therapy, exercise and stress reduction can also be effective complimentary paths to healing. Anyone suffering with an autoimmune condition should work with a qualified medical professional to determine the best course of care for their condition.
The different types of autoimmune disease can have a tremendous impact on your life. For many, autoimmune diseases present with periods of remissions and flares, where the symptoms of their condition worsen. Taking care of your mental heath is just as important as tending to your physical needs when you have an autoimmune disease. Speaking with a therapist, attending support groups and having open dialogues about your condition with those closest to you can help provide the emotional healing environment you need.
There are millions of Americans living with different types of autoimmune disease today. Each year brings new advancements in treatments and research that works toward zeroing in on the cause of autoimmune disorders. Aligning yourself with a qualified medical team and a support network can help you live life to the fullest and minimize the impact of autoimmune disease on your life.