An autoimmune disorder is a condition that occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders.
See also: Immune response
Normally the immune system's army of white blood cells helps protect the body from harmful substances, called antigens. Examples of antigens include bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and foreign blood or tissues from another person or species. The immune system produces antibodies that destroy these harmful substances.
But in patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between healthy body tissue and antigens. The result is an immune response that destroys normal body tissues. The response is a hypersensitivity reaction similar to allergies, where the immune system reacts to a substance that it normally would ignore. In allergies, the immune system reacts to an external substance that would normally be harmless. With autoimmune disorders, the immune system reacts to normal body tissues.
What causes the immune system to no longer distinguish between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory holds that various microorganisms and drugs may trigger some of these changes, particularly in persons who are genetically prone to autoimmune disorders.
An autoimmune disorder may result in:
- The destruction of one or more types of body tissue
- Abnormal growth of an organ
- Changes in organ function
An autoimmune disorder may affect one or more organ or tissue types. Organs and tissues commonly affected by autoimmune disorders include:
- Red blood cells
- Blood vessels
- Connective tissues
- Endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas
A person may have more than one autoimmune disorder at the same time. Examples of autoimmune (or autoimmune-related) disorders include:
Symptoms of an autoimmune disease vary widely and depend on the specific disease. A group of very nonspecific symptoms often accompany autoimmune diseases, and may include:
- General ill-feeling
- Low-grade fever
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will perform a physical exam. Specific signs vary widely and depend on the specific disease.
Tests that may be done to diagnose an autoimmune disorder may include:
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
- C-reactive protein (CRP)
The goals of treatment are to reduce symptoms and control the autoimmune process while maintaining the body's ability to fight disease. Treatments vary widely and depend on the specific disease and your symptoms.
Some patients may need supplements to replenish a hormone or vitamin that the body is lacking. Examples include thyroid supplements, vitamins, or insulin injections.
If the autoimmune disorder affects the blood, the person may need blood transfusions.
Measures to help with movement or other functions may be needed for autoimmune disorders that affect the bones, joints, or muscles.
Medicines are often prescribed to control or reduce the immune system's response. Such medicines may include corticosteroids and immunosuppressant drugs such as cyclophosphamide or azathioprine.
The outcome depends on the specific disease. Most are chronic, but many can be controlled with treatment. Symptoms of autoimmune disorders can come and go. The sudden, severe development of symptoms is called a flare up.
Complications depend on the specific disease. Side effects of medications used to suppress the immune system can be severe.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if symptoms of an autoimmune disorder develop.
There is no known prevention for most autoimmune disorders.