Autoimmune Diseases

Overview

What are autoimmune diseases?

Your immune system is made up of organs and cells meant to protect your body from bacteria, parasites, viruses and cancer cells. An autoimmune disease is the result of the immune system accidentally attacking your body instead of protecting it. It's unclear why your immune system does this.

There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases. Common ones include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

Autoimmune diseases can affect many types of tissues and nearly any organ in your body. They may cause a variety of symptoms including pain, tiredness (fatigue), rashes, nausea, headaches, dizziness and more. Specific symptoms depend on the exact disease.

How do autoimmune diseases work?

Experts don’t know why your immune system turns on you. It’s like it can no longer tell the difference between what’s healthy and what’s not — between what’s you and what’s an invader. There are some theories about why this happens, but experts aren’t completely sure.

What’s a list of autoimmune diseases?

Some common autoimmune diseases include:

Diseases of the joints and muscles:

Diseases of the digestive tract:

Diseases of the endocrine system:

Diseases of the skin:

Diseases of the nervous system:

Other diseases:

How common are autoimmune diseases?

Many autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men. The diseases are common — 1 in 15 people in the U.S. have an autoimmune disease. One million people in the U.S. have lupus and 1.4 million have Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

Are autoimmune diseases genetic?

Yes. Some autoimmune diseases run in families.

Are autoimmune diseases contagious?

No.

Are autoimmune diseases fatal?

Autoimmune diseases are one of the top 10 causes of death in women in all age groups (up to age 64).

How do autoimmune diseases affect you if you're trying to get pregnant?

Some autoimmune diseases can affect your ability to get pregnant and some have adverse effects on pregnancy. You may need fertility treatments to get pregnant. You might also want to wait until your disease is in the remission stage to try to conceive.

There is a higher risk for stillbirth or preterm birth if you have lupus. If you have myasthenia gravis, you may experience trouble breathing.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes autoimmune diseases?

The precise cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown. However, there are risk factors that may increase your chances of getting an autoimmune disease. Risk factors include:

  • Some medications. Talk to your healthcare provider about the side effects of medications for blood pressure, statins and antibiotics.
  • Having relatives with autoimmune diseases. Some diseases are genetic — they run in families.
  • Smoking.
  • Already having one autoimmune disease. You’re at a higher risk of developing another.
  • Exposure to toxins.
  • Being female — 78% of people who have an autoimmune disease are women.
  • Obesity.
  • Infections.

What are the autoimmune disease symptoms?

Symptoms categorized by type of disease include:

Diseases of the joints and muscles:

  • Muscle aches and pains.
  • Joint pain, stiffness and swelling.
  • Muscle weakness.
  • Inflammation.

Diseases of the digestive tract:

  • Bloating.
  • Constipation.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Acid reflux.
  • Nausea.
  • Food sensitivities.
  • Blood or mucus in stool (poop).

Diseases of the skin:

  • Rashes.
  • Itching.
  • Dry eyes.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Inflammation.
  • Hair loss.
  • Dry skin.

Diseases of the nervous system:

  • Dizziness.
  • Headaches.
  • Anxiety and depression.
  • Confusion and difficulty thinking.
  • Blurry vision.
  • Insomnia.
  • Memory issues.
  • Migraines.
  • Lightheadedness.
  • Numbness and tingling.

Other diseases:

  • Fatigue.
  • Pain.
  • Fever.
  • Chest pain.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Weight gain or loss.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Temperature sensitivity.

How long do autoimmune diseases last?

It varies. Some are easily treated and some are not. Some autoimmune diseases can last a lifetime.

Diagnosis and Tests

How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?

Diagnosing an autoimmune disease usually takes healthcare providers longer than it does to diagnose other diseases. This is because many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms with each other and with other diseases. You can help your healthcare provider with the diagnosing process by bringing the following to your appointment:

  • A detailed list of any symptoms and how long you’ve had them.
  • A record of your family’s health history. Note if anyone in your family has an autoimmune disease.

In addition to interviewing you about your symptoms, your healthcare provider may do some blood tests to check for autoimmune diseases, including:

  • Antinuclear antibody test (ANA).
  • Complete blood count (CBC).
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).

Specific symptoms combined with specific blood markers may prove that you have an autoimmune disease.

Which healthcare providers diagnose autoimmune diseases?

If your primary healthcare provider can’t diagnose you, you may have to see a specialist like a gastroenterologist or a rheumatologist.

What questions might a healthcare provider ask to help diagnose an autoimmune disease?

When your healthcare provider interviews you, they might ask you one or more of the following questions:

  • What medications are you taking?
  • What are your symptoms?
  • How severe are your symptoms?
  • Have you had to go to the emergency department because of your symptoms?
  • How long have you had these symptoms?
  • In what ways are your symptoms affecting your quality of life?
  • Is there anything that “triggers” your symptoms? Anything that makes them worse?
  • Is there a history of autoimmune diseases in your family?
  • Which autoimmune diseases run in your family?
  • What over-the-counter or alternative medicines have you tried, if any?

Management and Treatment

How are autoimmune diseases treated?

There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, but symptoms can be managed. Everyone’s immune system, genetics and environment are different. That means that your treatment must be unique.

Some examples of medications used to treat autoimmune diseases include:

  • Painkillers.
  • Antiinflammatories.
  • Medications for depression and anxiety.
  • Insulin injections.
  • Sleeping medications.
  • Plasma exchanges.
  • Corticosteroids.
  • Rash creams and pills.
  • Intravenous immune globulin.
  • Drugs that suppress (subdue) your immune system.

Some people try complementary (alternative) medicines and procedures. Examples include:

What kind of healthcare provider treats autoimmune diseases?

The specialist you need depends on the type of autoimmune disease you have. Your healthcare provider may refer you to a:

  • Rheumatologist.
  • Gastroenterologist.
  • Endocrinologist.
  • Dermatologist.

Does diet play a role in the treatment of autoimmune diseases?

Some experts say that what you eat affects autoimmune diseases. Talk to your primary healthcare provider or dietitian about an ideal nutrition plan.

Does exercise help with autoimmune diseases?

Yes, but talk to your healthcare provider about what type and amount of exercise is right for you.

Prevention

Can autoimmune diseases be prevented?

It may not be possible to prevent autoimmune diseases. But, some experts recommend that you try:

  • Exercising consistently.
  • Staying away from cigarettes.
  • Avoiding toxins.
  • Eating a healthy diet.
  • Limiting processed foods from your diet.

Outlook / Prognosis

What’s the outlook for people with autoimmune diseases?

Your autoimmune disease symptoms may change with time. They may go into remission, where you have minimal or no symptoms, or they could flare up, making the disease worse. Although they can’t be cured, some of the symptoms can be treated. Many people with autoimmune diseases can live a normal life.

Can autoimmune diseases go away on their own?

There have been instances where an autoimmune disease disappears. However, most are chronic (meaning that they last a long time, if not a lifetime).

Living With

Can I live a normal life with an autoimmune disease?

Yes, but it may be more difficult if your symptoms are severe. Your healthcare provider can help you figure out how to manage your symptoms so that you can participate in your daily activities.

How do I take care of myself?

Learn how to manage your symptoms, reduce your stress, exercise and eat a healthy diet.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider about autoimmune diseases?

It’s helpful to have some questions ready to ask before you see your provider. Examples to consider include:

  • Do I have an autoimmune disease?
  • What tests should I go through?
  • What type of autoimmune disease do I have?
  • Do I need to see a specialist?
  • What specialist should I see?
  • What’s the best treatment for me?
  • Should I let my family members know that I have an autoimmune disease?

When should I go to the emergency department?

Go to the emergency department if any of the following autoimmune disease symptoms get severe:

  • Trouble breathing/shortness of breath. Remember that some people with an autoimmune disease can experience this when they’re pregnant.
  • Severe chest pain/pressure to your chest.
  • A headache that starts suddenly and feels like the “worst headache you’ve ever had.”
  • Sudden weakness, especially if you can’t move.
  • Dizziness that doesn’t stop.
  • Pain so severe that you can’t stand it.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Living with an autoimmune disease can be complicated. Diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are complex and serious. Although there are no cures for these diseases, many of their symptoms can be treated, and sometimes they go into remission. Stay in touch with your healthcare provider about any advances in understanding and treating autoimmune diseases.

If you think you may have an autoimmune disease, see your healthcare provider as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment. Your symptoms will be easier to control if the condition is treated promptly.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/21/2021.

References

  • Benaroya Research Institute. Immune System Diseases. (https://www.benaroyaresearch.org/what-is-bri/disease-information/autoimmune-diseases) Accessed 7/23/2021.
  • Global Autoimmune Institute. 7 Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease. (https://www.autoimmuneinstitute.org/7-risk-factors-for-autoimmune-disease/) Accessed 7/23/2021.
  • Global Autoimmune Institute. Autoimmune Disease Symptom List. (https://www.autoimmuneinstitute.org/resources/symptomlist/) Accessed 7/23/2021.
  • Merck Manual: Consumer Version. Autoimmune Disorders (https://www.merckmanuals.com/home/immune-disorders/allergic-reactions-and-other-hypersensitivity-disorders/autoimmune-disorders) Accessed 7/23/2021.
  • National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Autoimmune Diseases. (https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/autoimmune-diseases) Accessed 7/23/2021.
  • Office on Women’s Health. Autoimmune Diseases. (https://www.womenshealth.gov/a-z-topics/autoimmune-diseases) Accessed 7/23/2021.

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