The text is presented for informational purposes only. We urge you not to self-medicate. When the first symptoms appear, consult a doctor. Recommended reading: " Why not self-medicate?". Autoimmune diseases are the most complex and difficult to treat diseases caused by malfunctioning of the immune system. They occur when the immune system attacks healthy cells in the body.
The human immune system is a complex of tissues, organs and cells. Its task is to protect the body from pathogens in the form of infections, bacteria, fungi and foreign bodies. But sometimes the system for recognizing “us” and “them” fails. Then the immune system perceives the healthy cells of the body as enemies and begins to attack them with the help of autoantibodies, in other words, it produces antibodies against “its own”.
Today, specialists do not have enough knowledge to say exactly why autoimmune diseases occur. In addition, they are quite difficult to diagnose and treat. However, autoimmune diseases are very common. According to preliminary estimates by American experts, only in the United States there are about 24 million people suffering from at least one disease from this group. These diseases can be either localized to one organ or tissue, or systemic - affecting different parts of the body. However, even localized diseases often cause complications by affecting other organs. Interestingly, almost a quarter of people with autoimmune diseases have a tendency to develop other diseases from this group. If a patient has three or more autoimmune processes, they indicate the development of multiple autoimmune syndrome (MAS). But it's still hard for experts to say why some people get MAS.
Varieties of autoimmune diseases
There are several types of autoimmune diseases that can affect different organs and systems of the body. To date, experts know about almost 80 types of autoimmune diseases. Some of them, such as autoimmune thyroiditis (Hashimoto's thyroiditis), are diagnosed quite often, others are less common. Below we consider the most famous autoimmune diseases.
Systemic (affecting several organs at once)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus. It is a chronic autoinflammatory disease that is more common in women. The main triggers for exacerbation of the disease: ultraviolet radiation, viral infections, stress. Against the background of the disease, problems arise with the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, brain, and the process of hematopoiesis is also disturbed.
- Acquired autoimmune disorders due to human immunodeficiency virus. Infection with HIV causes a total destruction of the immune system, which leads to damage to most systems, organs and tissues of the body.
Other common types of systemic autoimmune diseases:
- dermatomyositis - affects the skin and muscles;
- rheumatoid arthritis - affects the joints, lungs, skin, eyes;
- scleroderma - damage to the skin, intestines, lungs, kidneys;
- Sjögren's syndrome – salivary and lacrimal glands, joints are affected.
Apparatus affecting the eyes
- Acute anterior uveitis. This is the most common inflammatory disease of the iris. It is usually associated with the presence of the HLA-B27 antigen in the body.
- Sjögren's syndrome. This is a disease in which the immune system attacks the glands of external secretion (responsible for the production of tears and saliva).
Affecting the gastrointestinal tract
- Autoimmune hepatitis. Damages liver cells. Autoimmune hepatitis occurs in 1-2 people out of 100 thousand, and in women much more often than in men (out of 10 patients, 7 are women). Scientists have proven a genetic predisposition to this disease.
- Celiac disease. A condition in which the intestines do not respond adequately to foods containing gluten. In this disorder, the lining of the small intestine becomes inflamed each time a food containing a specific protein is consumed.
- Inflammatory bowel disease. This is a generalized name for several diseases that cause chronic inflammation in the organs of the digestive tract. The most common ailments in this group are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
- Primary biliary cirrhosis. In this disorder, the immune system slowly destroys the bile ducts of the liver.
Affecting hematopoiesis and blood vessels
- Polyarteritis nodosa. A serious disease during which small and medium-sized arteries become inflamed and affected. The risk of developing the disease increases against the background of hepatitis B and C.
- Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. Leads to damage to blood vessels.
- Hemolytic anemia. This type of anemia occurs when immune cells attack blood cells.
- Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. Causes destruction of platelets.
Damage to the skin
- Scleroderma. This autoimmune disorder affects the connective tissues of the skin and blood vessels, as well as muscles and internal organs. The disease is more often diagnosed in women aged 30 to 50 years.
- Dermatomyositis. This condition leads to inflammation of the muscles and is accompanied by a skin rash. Often appears in people with malignant tumors in the lungs or abdominal cavity.
- Psoriasis. A common autoimmune disease that causes scales and dry, itchy patches on the skin. Often the disease is accompanied by pain in the joints. The main triggers of the disease: stress, poor ecology, infectious diseases.
- Vitiligo. In this condition, the cells that contain skin pigment are destroyed, causing white spots to appear on the body. It most often affects people with dark skin.
- Alopecia areata. It develops when the immune system attacks the hair follicles.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus. This disease occurs due to the fact that autoantibodies affect the cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for the production of insulin. As a result, there is a lack of insulin, which increases the level of glucose in the blood and urine.
- Autoimmune pancreatitis and hepatitis. This is an inflammation of the pancreas and liver caused by the pathogenic activity of immune cells.
- 21-hydroxylase deficiency. This disease affects the adrenal glands and leads to excessive production of male sex hormones androgens.
- Autoimmune thyroiditis. During this disorder, the cells of the thyroid gland are destroyed, which leads to its insufficient activity. This disease can appear at any age, but is more common among middle-aged women.
- Graves' disease (hyperthyroidism, Graves' disease). This autoimmune disorder causes an overactive thyroid gland.
Affecting the nervous system
- Multiple sclerosis. In the course of the disease, brain cells and the nervous system are attacked by the immune system. Autoimmune cells damage the myelin sheaths that serve as a protective covering for nerve cells.
- Myasthenia gravis. In this disorder, the immune system attacks the nerve endings and muscles, resulting in severe weakness.
- Bechterew's disease (ankylosing spondylitis). This is a common form of chronic arthritis caused by an autoimmune disease. The disease affects the joints of the spine and pelvis (sacro-iliac joints) and paravertebral soft tissues. The progression of the disease leads to severe pain, skeletal deformity and disability.
- Reiter's syndrome. This is an inflammation that affects the joints, which often develops as a complication of certain infectious diseases (nasopharyngeal, genitourinary, intestinal). The disease usually affects large joints (knees and lower back), but also causes eye inflammation ( conjunctivitis, uveitis), urethritis (inflammation of the urethra) in men, and cervicitis in women (inflammation of the cervix).
- Rheumatoid arthritis. This is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. As a result of this disease, the tissues of the joints suffer. The disease leads to inflammation and severe damage to the cartilage tissue. As the disease progresses, the lungs, pleura, sclera of the eyes may be damaged, or pericarditis may begin.
Risk factors for autoimmune disease
Autoimmune disorders can affect almost anyone. But researchers still acknowledge that certain groups of people have a higher risk of getting sick.
Major risk factors:
- Genetics. Studies show that children whose parents suffer from autoimmune disorders are also at an increased risk of developing the disease. For example, multiple sclerosis and lupus are often inherited.
- Pos. Women are generally more prone to autoimmune disorders. Perhaps the reason is hormones or the fact that women generally have stronger immunity than men. In addition, scientists have found that women of childbearing age are more likely to get sick.
- Age. Most often, diseases of this group occur in young and middle age.
- Ethnicity. American experts have found that autoimmune disorders are much more common in Native Americans, Hispanics and blacks than in Europeans and Asians. If we talk about statistics by type of disease, then type 1 diabetes is more common in whites, and lupus erythematosus, for example, in representatives of the black race and indigenous people of Hispanic countries (23 countries in Latin America, Africa and the Pacific). Scientists explain the influence of this factor by the presence of common genes in representatives of one ethnic group, as well as the influence of the environment in which they live, including solar activity.
- Infection. If a person with a genetic predisposition has suffered from specific viral or bacterial infections, the risk that they may develop an autoimmune disease in the future increases even more.
Methods of diagnosis
Since many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms, their diagnosis is often difficult. For example, lupus affects the joints in a similar way to rheumatoid arthritis, although the symptoms are less severe. Joint stiffness and inflammation, as in RA, is also caused by Lyme disease, although this disease is not an autoimmune disease (its causative agent is a bacterium carried by ticks). Inflammatory bowel disease often has symptoms similar to celiac disease. The only difference is that in the first case, it is not gluten that causes digestive problems. Much easier to identify thyroid disease. As a rule, to make a diagnosis, it is enough to analyze the level of hormones produced by the gland and do some other specific tests.
Diagnosis of autoimmune diseases in each case may require its own methods. For example, to make a diagnosis, a patient with rheumatoid arthritis will have to undergo a physical examination, take a blood test and take an x-ray. These tests will help determine the type of arthritis and how severe it is.
The main test for determining any autoimmune disease is testing for the presence of a specific autoantibody. A complete blood count is also important, because when the immune system is fighting something, the number of red blood cells and white blood cells always deviates from the norm. A blood test for erythrocyte sedimentation rate and C-reactive protein will help determine the presence of an inflammatory process in the body that accompanies all types of autoimmune disorders.
The most dangerous thing is that sometimes it can take years for a patient with autoimmune disorders to make an accurate diagnosis, since in the early stages many diseases are similar to each other.
Traditional and modern methods of treatment
Quite a common question: which doctor treats autoimmune diseases? In fact, there is no one doctor who would treat all types of autoimmune disorders. Depending on the type of disease, a variety of specialists can deal with the treatment of such a patient. So, if the kidneys are affected in a patient with lupus, then he is observed by a nephrologist. With multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis, one should consult a neurologist. For arthritis and scleroderma, see a rheumatologist. If an autoimmune condition is causing hormonal imbalances, the patient should see an endocrinologist. Skin diseases such as psoriasis are treated by a dermatologist and inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract by a gastroenterologist.
There are also no universal treatments for autoimmune diseases. In medical practice, different types of drugs can be used. While some therapies are aimed at alleviating the symptoms of the disease (relieving pain and inflammation), others directly affect the disease process itself.Medical products (preparations, medicines, vitamins, medicines) are mentioned for informational purposes only. We do not recommend using them without a doctor's prescription. Recommended reading: " Why can't you take medications without a doctor's prescription?". In drug therapy, several groups of drugs are commonly used:
- Drugs that relieve symptoms of the disease in the form of pain and inflammation. These are usually non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or conventional pain relievers.
- Corticosteroids. Drugs in this group suppress the immune system and prevent inflammatory reactions. This method of treatment is usually used for autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis.
- Agents for restoring deficient hormone. In autoimmune disorders such as diabetes or thyroiditis, the production of vital components is disrupted in the body. Therefore, in this case, the task of therapy is to replenish the missing hormones. In diabetes, this is insulin, with insufficient activity of the thyroid gland, hormones of the gland.
- Immunosuppressants. This is a group of drugs used to suppress the increased activity of the immune system.
- Tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors. Used to treat psoriasis and autoimmune arthritis.
In addition to drug therapy, some types of autoimmune disorders benefit from exercise therapy to help maintain optimal joint mobility. In some cases, surgical methods help to improve the patient's condition. Surgery is usually used for bowel obstruction caused by Crohn's disease or when a damaged joint needs to be replaced.
Scientific discoveries made in recent years allow specialists to develop new treatments for autoimmune diseases. For example, modern medicine resorts to the use of immune system modulators, cellular therapies, and so-called tissue engineering. One of the most promising treatment strategies is stem cell transplantation. This procedure is aimed at restoring the proper functioning of the immune system. Scientists are also working on the creation of specific antigens that would help in the treatment of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, and systemic lupus erythematosus. In addition to the development of new therapeutic methods, research is also being carried out to develop new biomarkers. They can be useful in determining the stage, activity, and progression of a disease, and in showing the body's response to therapy.
Today, autoimmune diseases are incurable. With the help of a well-designed program, you can slow down the progression of the disease and alleviate the patient's condition during periods of exacerbation. But it is still impossible to completely cure the patient. In addition to drug therapy, people with autoimmune diseases should also adhere to a special lifestyle. For such patients, it is very important to eat balanced and wholesome foods, maintain a healthy body weight, engage in appropriate types of physical activity, avoid stressful situations and not forget about healthy rest.