The Basics of Autoimmune Disease

The Basics of Autoimmune Disease

Autoimmune diseases occur when something goes awry with how our immune system is functioning. Your immune system consists of the organs and processes that provide protection against infection and toxins. In order to function properly your immune system needs to be capable of detecting an enormous variety of pathogens and distinguish them from your own healthy tissue. Systems are in place that allow your body to identify that which belongs and that which does not, it is able to identify between self and non-self and then respond accordingly.

An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system mistakenly identifies your own tissues and cells as foreign and launches an inappropriate immune response. Essentially your system goes into overdrive and attacks when it should not. There are over 80 different autoimmune disorders that affect a wide range of body parts. In the US it is estimated that the overall prevalence of autoimmune diseases is around 5%, affecting around 24 million Americans.

Causes and Risk Factors

Researchers have not identified a single causative agent for autoimmune diseases, rather it appears as if such conditions result from a number of factors that together, in certain combinations, result in disease.

Genetics – As with many biological functions there is a genetic component to autoimmune diseases. Having a relative with an autoimmune disorder does not guarantee that you will develop one as well but does certainly put you at greater risk for doing so. Certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus and multiple sclerosis tend to run in families.  Women are more likely to develop an autoimmune condition, around 80% of autoimmune patients are women. Certain ethnic groups may have increased risk for certain autoimmune conditions.

Environmental factors – A range of environmental factors have been identified that either have a direct role in the development of autoimmune diseases or act as catalysts. These environmental factors include but aren’t limited to chemical exposure, UV light exposure, infections, trauma, diet and composition of gut bacteria.

Common Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

Symptoms resulting from an autoimmune disease can range from mild to severe and even life threatening. The same disease can elicit vastly different symptoms depending on the patient. Despite this, there are symptoms that span multiple diseases and are fairly common among autoimmune patients. These symptoms include fatigue, joint pain and swelling, skin problems, recurring temperatures or low grade fever, swollen glands, abdominal pain and digestive issues. Symptoms will frequently come and go and patients can experience periods of remission in between flares of the disease.


It can be difficult to get diagnosed when you present with these symptoms. Many symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases could be caused by other factors such as common illness including colds and flu. For the most part there isn’t a single test that will give a definitive diagnosis. More often than not a diagnosis will be made incorporating a number of factors including symptom presentation, specific blood markers, biopsies and imaging such as x-rays and scans. It can be a case of ruling out other causes that could be causing the symptoms before landing on an autoimmune diagnosis. Although it can be a long and stressful process, it is important that if you are experiencing symptoms you keep trying to identify the cause. It can help doctors if you record your symptoms (even those that seem unrelated), make sure you have as much detail as possible in your family health history, get a second, third or forth opinion if necessary (until you find a doctor that takes your symptoms seriously) and lastly request a referral to specialists that deal with your most major symptoms. Although it may be necessary to see numerous specialists make sure you have a supportive doctor that will assume the role of coordinating your care and will be your first port of call for anything relating to your condition.  This can be your general practitioner or once a diagnosis has been made can be a specialist that treats your condition such as a rheumatologist for rheumatic diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Lupus or a neurologist for conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.


Treatment options depend on of the type and severity of disease a patient has. The majority of autoimmune diseases are chronic and do not yet have a conclusive cure. Much has been done in the fight against these diseases and as a result, while the fight for cures continues, symptoms and long-term damage can be alleviated and controlled with treatment. Currently, in lieu of a cure the aim of many treatments is to lessen the severity of symptoms providing relief, as well as moderating the body’s immune response while allowing it to still offer protection when it is appropriate and necessary. Traditional treatments include non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation, glucocorticoids to reduce inflammation, disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) to decrease damage to tissue and organs, as well as newer treatments such as biologics which are protein engineered from human genes that have a more targeted approach and don’t affect the entire immune system. Patients will often need to try multiple treatments before identifying which works the best for them and this may involve a combination of a number of treatments.

Looking to the Future

Research is ongoing, many physicians and researchers are working tirelessly to improve treatment options, define causes and mechanisms of the disease and hopefully one day find a cure. In the meantime, although living with an autoimmune disease is challenging is does not need to have complete control over your life. There is much you can do as your body struggles against itself. Make sure you follow a balanced healthy lifestyle with regards to activity levels and nutrition, make sure you receive enough rest, join a support group as this can provide empathy as well learning opportunities, autoimmune conditions can be isolating so reach out to loved ones ask for their support and help, make sure you address both your physical and mental health symptoms, follow our doctors treatment plan and advocate for yourself, no one knows your body better than you do.



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Article Author
Arthritis National Research Foundation

The Arthritis National Research Foundation's mission is to provide initial research funding to brilliant, investigative scientists with new ideas to cure arthritis and related autoimmune diseases. Writing articles about the patients affected and the science being done to find a cure shows why we need to come together to #CureArthritis!

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