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Have an Autoimmune Disease? Here's 10 Things to Know, Doctors Say

Everything to know about having an autoimmune disease.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Your immune system is built to protect you from sickness and infections, but in certain instances, it can attack you instead of shielding you. It's unclear why it happens, but it takes place more often than you think. "Imagine that your body is a castle and your immune system is your army fighting off invaders like bacteria. If your army malfunctions and attacks the castle, you may have lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and/or psoriasis, among a hundred other autoimmune diseases. You may experience pain, fatigue, dizziness, rashes, depression and many more symptoms," The Cleveland Clinic states. The site adds, "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." Anyone living with an autoimmune disease knows how crippling it can be and here, Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies shares 10 things to know about having one. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What Should People Know About Autoimmune Conditions?

Dr. Mitchell explains, "An autoimmune disease is when the body's immune system attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. The immune system protects the body from foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. However, in people with autoimmune diseases, the immune system mistakes healthy cells for foreign invaders and begins attacking them. Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body, ranging from mild to severe. Common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn's disease, and type 1 Diabetes. Although there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, treatments are available to help manage symptoms and prevent further damage to the body."


What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

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"There is no one answer to the question of what causes autoimmune disease," says Dr. Mitchell. "Instead, it is thought that a variety of factors may contribute to developing these conditions. For example, some research suggests that genetics may play a role, as certain autoimmune diseases tend to run in families. For example, environmental factors such as infections or exposure to certain toxins may trigger the immune system to start attacking healthy tissue. Finally, stress and other psychological factors may also contribute to the development of autoimmune disease. While the exact cause of these conditions remains unknown, researchers continue to work towards identifying all of the potential contributing factors.

Autoimmune diseases are a broad category of disorders that occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body. While the exact cause of autoimmune diseases is unknown, they are believed to be triggered by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body, often leading to a wide range of symptoms. In some cases, autoimmune diseases can be severe, causing organ damage and even death. In other cases, they may only cause mild symptoms that can be easily managed. However, regardless of the severity, all autoimmune diseases can significantly impact overall health and well-being. Left untreated, autoimmune diseases can lead to chronic inflammation and damage tissues and organs. Autoimmune diseases can also make it difficult for the body to fight off infections, increasing the risk of severe illnesses such as pneumonia and sepsis. Given the potentially serious consequences of autoimmune diseases, it is essential to seek prompt medical care if you suspect you may have one of these disorders."


Autoimmune Diseases Occur When the Body's Immune System Attacks Healthy Tissues by Mistake


Dr. Mitchell says, "Autoimmune diseases occur when the body's immune system attacks healthy tissues by mistake. The immune system can distinguish between self and non-self tissues in a healthy individual. However, in someone with an autoimmune disease, the immune system cannot tell the difference and will attack healthy tissues as if they were foreign invaders. Depending on which tissues are affected, this can lead to a wide range of symptoms. For example, autoimmune diseases can be challenging to diagnose because the symptoms can vary widely and mimic other conditions. However, a few key features are standard among autoimmune diseases. These include a family history of autoimmune disease, the presence of autoantibodies, and inflammation. While there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, early diagnosis and treatment can help lessen the symptoms and prevent further damage to the body."


Autoimmune Disease Puts You at an Increased Risk for Heart Disease

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Dr. Mitchell states, "Autoimmune diseases put you at increased risk of heart disease. Cholesterol levels considered normal in one person might be too high for someone with an autoimmune disease. Therefore, it's essential to be mindful of heart disease risk factors. Those with autoimmune diseases are two to three times more likely to have a heart attack than individuals without these conditions. The reasons for this link aren't fully understood, but it's thought that inflammation plays a role. Inflammation is a critical component of both autoimmune diseases and heart disease. If you have an autoimmune disease, you must work with your doctor to manage your risk factors for heart disease. This may include monitoring your cholesterol levels and blood pressure and making lifestyle changes such as quitting smoking and eating a healthy diet. Taking these steps can help you reduce your risk of developing heart disease."


Autoimmune Diseases are Chronic and Can Last for Years or be Lifelong

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"Autoimmune diseases are chronic and can last for years or be lifelong," Dr. Mitchell reveals. "For patients, this means a lifelong commitment to wellness is essential. Autoimmune diseases are often managed with a combination of lifestyle changes and medication. Treatment plans vary depending on the individual but may include diet changes, exercise, stress reduction, and avoidance of triggers. Some autoimmune diseases may also require treatment with immune-suppressing drugs or other medications. While there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, many patients can manage their symptoms and live healthy lives."


Autoimmune Diseases can be Challenging to Diagnose because Symptoms Mimic Other Conditions

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Dr. Mitchell says, "Autoimmune diseases can be challenging to diagnose because their symptoms mimic those of other conditions. For example, when a patient presents with multiple symptoms affecting different body systems, it is essential to consider autoimmune disease as a possible diagnosis. While there are a wide variety of autoimmune diseases, they all share the common feature of an overactive immune response. For example, the body's immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, leading to inflammation and tissue damage. Autoimmune diseases can affect any body system, and their symptoms can range from mild to severe. Therefore, early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in managing these conditions and preventing further damage."


Women are More Likely to Develop Autoimmune Diseases than Men

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Dr. Mitchell explains, "Autoimmune diseases are caused when the body's immune system attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases than men, and this disparity is seen across all age groups. While the precise reason for this difference is not yet known, several possible explanations exist. One theory is that estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, may play a role in triggering autoimmune disease. Estrogen levels fluctuate throughout a woman's life, rising and falling in response to hormonal changes. This fluctuation may make women more susceptible to developing an autoimmune disease.

Additionally, women's immune systems may be more reactive than men's, meaning they are more likely to overreact to foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. This heightened reactivity may also increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disease. Finally, women are more likely to experience chronic stress than men, and chronic stress has increased susceptibility to autoimmune disease. Given the importance of the immune system in protecting our health, we must continue researching why women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases and what can be done to prevent or treat these conditions."


Some Autoimmune Diseases Run in Families, but Environmental Factors Also Play a Role

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According to Dr. Mitchell, "Autoimmune diseases are a heterogeneous group of conditions with complex etiologies. While some autoimmune diseases run in families, increasing evidence suggests that environmental factors also play a role. For example, the rapid increase in the incidence of autoimmune diseases in recent years is likely due to changes in environmental factors, such as increased exposure to toxins and increased stress levels. Therefore, it is essential to identify genetic and environmental risk factors to prevent the development of autoimmune diseases. Once these risk factors are understood, strategies can be implemented to mitigate their impact. Only by taking a comprehensive approach will we effectively reduce the burden of autoimmune disease."


Autoimmune Diseases Can Affect Any Body Part, and Symptoms Can Range From Mild to Severe

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According to Dr Mitchell, "Autoimmune diseases are a heterogeneous group of more than 80 serious chronic illnesses that occur when the body's immune system turns against itself. The immune system protects the body from foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. However, the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs in people with autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases can affect any body part, and symptoms can range from mild to severe. In some cases, the symptoms might be so mild that a person does not realize they have an autoimmune disease. In other cases, the symptoms can be debilitating and even life-threatening.

Because autoimmune diseases are so diverse, it is essential to be aware of a constellation of vague symptoms that might be related to an autoimmune disease. These symptoms can include fatigue, general ill feeling (malaise), unexplained fever, abdominal pain, joint pain or swelling, skin rash or changes in skin color, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, chest pain, shortness of breath, or weight loss. You should see your doctor for further evaluation if you experience any of these symptoms regularly. In addition, early diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases are essential for preventing severe health complications."


If You Have One Autoimmune Disease You Could Develop Another One

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Dr. Mitchell shares, "Autoimmune diseases vary as far as their symptoms, and they have complex causes. They are characterized by the dysregulation of the immune system, resulting in tissue damage. Although autoimmune diseases can affect any tissue or organ, they most commonly target the joints, skin, and gastrointestinal tract. There is a strong tendency for autoimmune diseases to cluster within families, suggesting a genetic predisposition.

Additionally, women are more likely than men to develop an autoimmune disease, and certain ethnic groups have a higher incidence of certain disorders. For example, lupus is more common in African American women, while Grave's disease is more common in Caucasians. The increased incidence of autoimmune diseases in certain groups suggests that environmental factors may also play a role in disease development. For example, infections and stress have been linked to the development of autoimmune diseases. While the exact cause of the autoimmune disease is unknown, it is clear that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to disease development.

Given the complex causes of these disorders, it is not surprising that there is a high degree of comorbidity between different autoimmune diseases. In other words, if you have one autoimmune disease, there is a chance that you might have or develop another autoimmune disease. This increased risk highlights the importance of early diagnosis."


There's No Cure for Most Autoimmune Diseases


"Autoimmune diseases are some of the most debilitating and complex conditions to manage," Dr. Mitchell says. "There is no cure for most autoimmune diseases, but treatments can help manage symptoms and prevent further damage to the body. Current treatments focus on suppressing the immune system to reduce inflammation, which can lead to serious side effects. Researchers are developing new approaches to target autoimmune diseases' underlying causes. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that someday there will be more effective treatments for these conditions."


With Proper Treatment You Can Lead a Happy and Healthy Life

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"There are a variety of autoimmune diseases, ranging from Lupus to Crohn's disease, and each one presents its unique challenges," Dr. Mitchell states. "However, with proper treatment and self-care, many people with autoimmune disorders can lead happy and healthy lives. While there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, treatments can help reduce symptoms and improve quality of life. In some cases, this may involve medication or surgery. However, diet and lifestyle changes can also help manage the disease. For example, maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular exercise, and reducing stress levels can help lessen autoimmune diseases' impact. In addition, people with autoimmune disorders can live entire and satisfying lives with the right treatment plan." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather