A category of chronic diseases that occur when the body’s immune system attacks itself.
The immune system works to protect us from harmful or foreign substances.
Autoimmune diseases occur when a person’s immune system is unable to differentiate between its body’s cells and foreign cells and mistakenly attacks its own cells.
There is a broad range of autoimmune diseases that affect different parts of the body, leading to unique symptoms.
Why would my body attack itself?
The immune system involves an intricate network of cells, tissues and organs. It serves to protect us from antigens that can lead to illness or disease, including bacteria, viruses, chemicals, toxins and cancer cells. There are multiple risk factors that may lead to autoimmune diseases such as sex, genetics, obesity, medications, smoking and certain infections. While the exact cause of many autoimmune diseases remains unclear, there are a few theories:
Caught up in the fight
One theory is that the immune system may mistakenly mark normal cells as a “pathogen” when the system is actively fighting a foreign invader.
Another theory is that autoimmune diseases can result from the body trying to fight against cancer cells. Sometimes, after the immune system destroys cancer cells, there is a lingering inflammatory response. This leftover inflammatory response may target the body’s own cells and lead to chronic autoimmune disease.
The damage theory
Other scientists think injuries may be involved in the onset of certain autoimmune diseases like psoriatic arthritis. An injury can expose new tissue — usually kept unexposed — to the immune system. When the body tries to heal this injured area, the immune system may misidentify the newly exposed tissue as “foreign,” causing an abnormal inflammatory response
Do I know anyone with an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases affect around 4% of the global population. The most common of the 80+ autoimmune diseases include Crohn’s Disease, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma and psoriasis.
How do I know if I have an autoimmune disease?
The best answer is that there is no single answer. Unfortunately, each of the 80+ autoimmune diseases presents with different symptoms, and the severity of symptoms varies from person to person.
Diagnosis is difficult because initial symptoms can be vague and fleeting. To complicate matters further, there is no single test to identify an autoimmune disease. Instead, doctors diagnose autoimmune diseases through a combination of symptoms and indicative blood work.
Can an autoimmune disease be cured?
Although autoimmune diseases are not usually curable, proper medical management can control symptoms.
Is there any way to prevent autoimmune diseases?
While genetics play a role, there is a general consensus in the medical community that there are things you can do to boost your immune system and potentially mitigate the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. This includes eating an anti-inflammatory diet, maintaining a healthy weight, improving gut health, not smoking, reducing stress, and getting enough sleep. In addition, there are environmental factors such as air pollution, uranium, lead and mercury that may contribute to the risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
Outside the Huddle
Autoimmune Disease: Why Is My Immune System Attacking Itself? | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Autoimmune diseases | Office of Women’s Health
NIEH on Autoimmune Diseases | National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Reviewed by Julia Radossich, PA-C