What are autoimmune disorders?
An autoimmune disorder is the name given to any condition which causes either overactivity or under activity of your immune system.
In autoimmune disorders characterized by overactivity of the immune system, cells of the immune system that normally fight infection or foreign invaders start attacking normal and healthy body tissues.
In autoimmune disorders characterized by under activity of the immune system, a person’s ability to fight infection is compromised, increasing their vulnerability to infection.
What causes autoimmune disorders?
Our immune system is meant to help protect us from harmful substances and organisms, these are known as antigens. Antigens stimulate our immune system to produce antibodies that are specific to that antigen. Antibodies are also known as immunoglobulins and they stick to the antigen, making it easy for our immune system to identify and destroy it.
Unfortunately, sometimes our immune system mistakenly identifies healthy tissues and cells in our body as harmful, producing antibodies against them. Nobody knows what causes the immune system of some people to do this, but some experts suggest it is a result of a genetic tendency to autoimmune disorders and an environmental effect (such as exposure to a bacteria or virus). In other cases, it may be a drug or toxin that triggers changes to the immune system.
What are the symptoms of autoimmune disorders?
Symptoms of autoimmune disorders vary and may reflect destruction or changes in the function of the blood cells, blood vessels, connective tissues, endocrine glands, joints, muscles, or skin. Some people may have more than one autoimmune disorder at a time. Common autoimmune disorders and their symptoms include:
- Celiac disease: Antibodies are produced in response to gluten in food, and the resulting reaction damages the lining of the small intestine, preventing it from absorbing some nutrients and causing symptoms such as anemia, bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss
- Grave’s disease (hyperthyroidism): Antibodies stimulate the thyroid gland to produce excessive amounts of thyroid hormone causing symptoms such as anxiety, rapid heart rate, weakness, and weight loss
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroidism): Antibodies attach to cells in the thyroid gland, and then the immune system slowly destroys these cells, causing symptoms such as cold sensitivity, dry skin, fatigue, and weight gain
- Inflammatory bowel disease: The lining of the intestines is attacked by the immune system causing symptoms such as abdominal pain, diarrhea, rectal bleeding, and weight loss
- Multiple sclerosis: Nerve cells are attacked by the immune system causing muscle spasms, poor coordination, pain, and weakness
- Myasthenia gravis: Antibodies attach to nerves and then the immune system attacks, preventing nerves from stimulating muscles properly causing symptoms such as weakness that gets worse with activity
- Psoriasis: Over-active immune system blood cells, called T-cells, stimulate skin cells to proliferate rapidly, producing silvery, scaly plaques on the skin
- Rheumatoid arthritis: Antibodies attach to the lining of the joints and then the immune system attacks, causing symptoms such as joint inflammation, pain, and swelling
- Systemic lupus erythematosus: Antibodies attach to the tissues of the body and then the immune system attacks causing damage to the blood cells, joints, kidneys, lungs, and nerves
- Type 1 diabetes: Antibodies attach to the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas and then the immune system attacks, destroying these cells
There are at least 70 other known autoimmune disorders.
How are autoimmune disorders treated?
Treatments vary depending on what type of autoimmune disorder a person has.
Treatments are unable to cure the disorder but can help reduce immune system overactivity, if this is the problem, or stimulate the immune system if under activity is the problem.
Treatments may include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- Immune suppressing drugs
- Monoclonal antibodies
- Specific drugs, depending on the condition