Autoimmune diseases are caused by an overactive immune system. There are many types, including Coeliac disease, Graves’ disease, and lupus. Although they can’t be cured, there are various treatment options to manage the symptoms and reduce further damage to your body.
What is the immune system?
The immune system incorporates different parts of the body – including certain blood cells, bone marrow, skin and more – that work to keep you healthy. The immune system protects you from infection by detecting and fighting diseases.
If infectious agents such as bacteria or viruses get into your body, immune cells usually overwhelm or kill them, removing the infection. This is known as the immune response.
Causes of autoimmune disease
Autoimmune disease occurs when, the immune system instead of attacking bacteria, viruses or other sources of infection, attacks healthy tissues and organs.
It’s not known why this happens, although autoimmune conditions most often affect people with a genetic predisposition. An environmental factor such as an infection, medication, stress, diet or even ultraviolet radiation then triggers the symptoms of the autoimmune disease.
While this explains why autoimmune disease occurs generally, it’s not usually possible for doctors to determine why it occurs in an individual.
Types and symptoms of autoimmune disease
There are more than 80 different autoimmune diseases. Most of them are long-term illnesses, with the severity of symptoms changing over time.
Some of the more common autoimmune diseases include:
- Coeliac disease – the immune system reacts to gluten (found in wheat and other grains) and damages the small intestine. The coeliac disease causes diarrhea, flatulence and abdominal pain.
- Lupus – many parts of the body can be affected, including the skin, lungs, muscles, heart, joints, and kidneys.
- Rheumatoid arthritis – bone and cartilage are damaged, causing tender, stiff and swollen joints.
- Graves’ disease – the thyroid gland is overactive, causing anxiety, weight loss, heart palpitations and bulging or irritated eyes.
- Multiple sclerosis – the nervous system is affected, causing muscle weakness and poor coordination, sight problems and, in some cases, cognitive difficulties.
- Type 1 diabetes – the pancreas does not produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels, resulting in thirst, frequent urination and hunger.
Treatment of autoimmune disease
While there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, help is available. People diagnosed with autoimmune diseases often benefit from:
- a healthy diet
- maintaining a healthy weight
- plenty of sleep
- achieving the right combination of exercise and rest
- reducing stress where possible, and finding ways to deal with unavoidable stress
Lifestyle changes and specific medicines can help. For example, people with type 1 diabetes inject insulin, while those with autoimmune diseases that affect skin receive advice about the sun, bathing, lotions, and creams. People with the Coeliac disease must follow a gluten-free diet.
In some people, autoimmune diseases can be mild, while others will need to invest a lot of care and time in managing their condition. However, most people with autoimmune conditions are able to live a full and enjoyable life.