From the Office of Research on Women’s Health
The immune system is a network of your body’s cells, tissues, and organs that works to defend the body against attacks by dangerous microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses that can cause infections.
For example, when you cut yourself, bacteria enter into your body through the cut. Your immune system immediately goes into action, using a variety of cells to find and destroy the danger.
Similarly, when you are first exposed to a virus, your immune system mounts an attack and in the process develops a memory of the virus so that if you are exposed for a second time, your immune system is able to begin the fight against the virus faster. Your immune system works to keep you healthy.
The key to a healthy immune system is its remarkable ability to distinguish between your own body, which it tolerates and keeps safe, and infectious organisms, which are dangerous and it attacks.
But sometimes, for reasons we do not yet fully understand, the immune system breaks down and mistakenly attacks the body’s own organs, tissues, and cells. When your immune system attacks your healthy body, you develop an autoimmune disease. Genes, or heredity, seem to play an important role. Today, we know of more than 80 human autoimmune diseases, many of them rare.
Symptoms of autoimmune disorders vary widely and depend on the disease. Symptoms often include dizziness, fatigue, a general ill feeling, and a low-grade fever. Your health care provider can diagnose autoimmune disorders through a physical exam. He or she also will ask you about your symptoms and family history, and will likely conduct laboratory tests.
These are some of the more common autoimmune disorders:
Lupus, also known as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, occurs when your immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. This can damage your joints, skin, blood vessels, and organs. Lupus affects more women than men, and is more common in African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women. Symptoms include joint pain or swelling, muscle pain, fever with no known cause, and red rashes, often on the face (also called the butterfly rash).
Rheumatoid Arthritis is not like osteoarthritis, which only affects your joints and bones. Rheumatoid arthritis affects joints and bones (often of the hands and feet), and may also affect your skin and other organs. Rheumatoid arthritis generally occurs in a symmetrical pattern, meaning that if one knee or hand is involved, the other one is also involved. People with rheumatoid arthritis may have flare-ups, which means that the pain and inflammation from the arthritis may appear to come and go suddenly. If you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may also feel sick or tired, and have a fever. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs more often in women than men.
A diagram showing the tyroid gland and exophthalmos (bulging eyes) as a result of Grave’s disease.
Grave’s Disease is a disease of the thyroid gland (located in the front part of the neck below the larynx, or voice box). Your thyroid controls how quickly your body uses energy. If you have Grave’s disease, you have an overactive thyroid. Symptoms of an overactive thyroid include insomnia, irritability, weight loss, sensitivity to heat, fine brittle hair, bulging eyes, and shaky hands. Grave’s disease is treated with radioactive iodine, medication, and sometimes surgery. Grave’s disease is more common in women and those under the age of 40.
Sjögren’s Syndrome is a disease that causes dryness in the eyes and mouth. It can also lead to dryness in other normally moist areas such as the nose, throat, and skin. Sjögren’s syndrome is more common in women and those over the age of 40.
Most autoimmune disorders are chronic (long-term) diseases that can be controlled by treating the symptoms. For some, symptoms come and go, and flare ups can occur. Autoimmune disorders are serious conditions and should not be taken lightly. If you are having symptoms, talk with your health care provider.
If you are diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, your health care provider will work with you to decrease your symptoms and control the autoimmune process while maintaining your body’s ability to fight disease. Treatments vary according to the disease and symptoms and there is still no known way to prevent most autoimmune disorders.
For more information: www.niaid.nih.gov, www.niams.nih.gov, and www.niddk.nih.gov