fighting an internal threat
As the body's first line of defense, the immune system offers protection from simple and complex health threats.
The immune system produces antibodies that identify and destroy foreign invaders. In cases of autoimmune disease, however, antibodies can't distinguish between good and bad cells, which results in the destruction of healthy tissue.
"Autoimmunity is a condition that essentially causes a person's immune system to turn against itself," says Amy Kao, MD, director of biomedical informatics at the Lupus Center of Excellence at Allegheny Health Network. "Instead of defending against invaders, such as bacteria or viruses, the immune system attacks the body's own tissues and organs."
Understanding Autoimmune Disease
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases affect as many as 22 million people in the United States. These conditions can cause symptoms in nearly any part of the body and are often characterized by severe inflammation. Common illnesses that fall into this category include:
• Crohn's disease
• rheumatoid arthritis
• systemic lupus erythematosus
• Sjögren's syndrome
• Type 1 diabetes
Symptoms of autoimmune diseases, which present during episodes called "flares," vary according to the condition and the organs involved, but common bodily responses include fatigue, fever and general feelings of illness.
Who's at Risk?
Although physicians and researchers are unsure what causes autoimmune diseases, many cases result from a combination of risk factors, notably genetic predisposition.
"Family history is one of the most significant contributing factors to the development of autoimmune disease," Dr. Kao says. "However, environmental and lifestyle factors also play important roles. For example, cigarette smoking can increase risk for and severity of rheumatoid arthritis."
Additionally, gender can affect a person's chances of developing one of these conditions. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, women make up more than 78 percent of people affected by autoimmune diseases.
Treating autoimmune diseases requires a multidisciplinary team of specialists skilled in disease management. These health professionals develop treatment plans aimed at reducing symptoms, gaining control of the body's
autoimmune process and sustaining the body's disease-fighting abilities.
Due to the diverse nature of autoimmune conditions—each presenting unique symptoms and characteristics—therapy options may vary. However, a common goal of treatment for these conditions is the reduction of inflammation.
Corticosteroids and medications that suppress the immune system are often prescribed to achieve this goal, while physical therapy and lifestyle changes, including regular exercise and a healthful diet, may also prove beneficial.