What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
When the body’s immune system stops warding off disease and infection and instead attacks healthy cells inside the body, the diagnosis is an autoimmune disease. At times passed down from parents to children, the more than 80 autoimmune diseases can wreak havoc, as fatigue, pains and other troubling symptoms arise without warning.
While some autoimmune diseases are more prone to affect women (lupus, for example), and others are more frequently found in men (ankylosing spondylitis) or smokers (rheumatoid arthritis), the root of most autoimmune disease cases is unknown. However, the following are considered potential triggers for autoimmune diseases:
- Genetic predisposition
- Certain medications, which may cause a response leading to autoimmune disease
- Viral infections such as Hepatitis B or C
- Blood cancers
Symptoms of autoimmune diseases depend on the disease. Signs and symptoms of a few autoimmune diseases include:
- Lupus — Affecting any body system, lupus’s telltale sign is a butterfly-shaped rash that runs across the face. Other symptoms include joint pain, fever, fatigue, dry eyes, shortness of breath, headaches and skin abnormalities that arise or worsen in the sun or in cold environments. Patients with lupus might also have renal involvement.
- Rheumatoid arthritis — A chronic inflammation of joints and other body parts and organs, symptoms include tender and painful joints, especially in the early morning or following a period of inactivity, fatigue, weight loss and fever.
- Sjogren’s syndrome — Dry eyes and a dry mouth that cause discomfort are the chief symptoms. Others include skin rashes, vaginal dryness, joint pain, extended fatigue and swollen glands behind the jaw.
- Vasculitis — Rash, night sweats, headache, fever, weight loss, weakness or numbness, aches and pains, and fatigue result from this disease that inflames blood vessels.
Because there are so many autoimmune diseases, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment. Options include:
- Medication — A range of medications are used to treat autoimmune diseases. Because many involve inflammation and pain, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and corticosteroids are often prescribed. Other cases may benefit from immunosuppressant medications, which prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells, or medications that increase mouth saliva or address other disease-specific symptoms.
- Surgery — Not typically used as primary treatment, surgical intervention may be required if an autoimmune disease causes bodily damage that must be repaired. This may include repair of an aneurysm that forms in a blood vessel, replacement of a worn bone, joint or sealing off tear ducts that aren’t functioning properly. In same rare cases, renal or heart transplant may be required.
- Therapy — To maintain joint health, slow the spread of certain autoimmune diseases and provide maximum independence, physical and occupational therapy is often prescribed in conjunction with other treatment.
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