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Article title: Autoimmune Diseases: NWHIC
Conditions: Autoimmune Diseases
What is an
What are some of the most common examples of autoimmune diseases?
What causes autoimmune diseases?
How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?
How are autoimmune diseases treated?
The term "autoimmune disease" refers to a varied group of more than 80 serious, chronic illnesses that involve almost every human organ system. In all of these diseases, the underlying problem is similar--the body's immune system becomes misdirected, attacking the very organs it was designed to protect. About 75% of autoimmune diseases occur in women, most frequently during the childbearing years. Autoimmune diseases can affect connective tissue. (This is the tissue which binds together various tissues and organs.) It can also affect the nerves, muscles, endocrine system, and gastrointestinal system.
Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic sclerosis all affect the connective tissue. Multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, and Gullian-Barre syndromes are neuromuscular diseases. On the other hand, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves's disease, and insulin-dependent/juvenile diabetes (type 1) are all related to the endocrine system. Finally, inflammatory bowel disease is an autoimmune disease which attacks the gastrointestinal system.
Unfortunately, autoimmune diseases remain among the most poorly understood of any category of illness. It is thought that hormones play a role in inducing autoimmune diseases; some cases suddenly improve during pregnancy, some flare-ups occur after delivery, while others will get worse during pregnancy, or flare up after menopause.
Autoimmune diseases seem to also have a hereditary component, but mysteriously, they can cluster in families as different illnesses. For example, a mother may have lupus erythematosus; her daughter, diabetes; her grandmother, rheumatoid arthritis. Research is shedding light on genetic, as well as hormonal and environmental risk factors that contribute to the causes of these diseases.
The diagnosis of an autoimmune disease is based on an individual's symptoms, findings from a physical examination, and results from laboratory tests. Autoimmune diseases are difficult to diagnose, especially in the early stages of the disease. In some cases a specific diagnosis cannot be made; the patient must continue to follow up on the disease with frequent consultations with a physician. Although autoimmune diseases are chronic, the course they take is unpredictable. Patients should be monitored closely by their doctors so environmental factors or triggers can be avoided.
Autoimmune diseases are often chronic, requiring lifelong care and monitoring, even when the person may look or feel well. Currently, few autoimmune diseases can be cured or disappear with treatment. However, many people with these diseases live relatively normal and healthy lives when they receive the proper medical care.
Physicians often help patients manage the consequences of the disease. For example, people suffering from Type 1 diabetes will be prescribed insulin to control blood sugar levels. In some diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, medication can occasionally slow or stop the immune system's destruction of the kidneys or joints. These medications are called immunosuppressive medications and sometimes can have serious side effects. Ultimately, medical science is striving to design therapies that prevent and cure autoimmune diseases.
You can find out more about autoimmune diseases by contacting the following organizations:
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin
Internet Address: http://www.nih.gov/niams/
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Internet Address: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/
National Organization for Rare Diseases
Phone Number(s): (800) 999-6673 or 999-NORD
Internet Address: http://www.rarediseases.org/
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, Inc.
Phone Number(s): (800) 598-4668 (Literature Requests)
Internet Address: http://www.aarda.org/
This information was abstracted from fact sheets developed by the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Autoimmune Disease in Women).
All material contained in the FAQs is free of copyright restrictions, and may be copied, reproduced, or duplicated without permission of the Office on Women's Health in the Department of Health and Human Services; citation of the source is appreciated.
Publication date: October 23, 2000
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