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Autoimmune diseases

6-minute read

What is an autoimmune disease?

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system produces antibodies that wrongly attack the body’s own cells.

sually protects you from infection. It does this by finding and fighting off viruses and bacteria that enter your body. An autoimmune disease occurs when your healthy organs and tissues are being targeted by your immune system.

There are many types of autoimmune diseases. Some only involve one area of your body. Others may involve many different parts of the body.

What are the types and symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

There are many different autoimmune diseases. Most affect more than one part of the body.

Autoimmune diseases usually cause inflammation. This can produce redness, swelling, heat and pain. Your symptoms will depend on the part of your body that is affected. For example:

  • your joints can become painful, stiff, and lose function
  • your skin can become inflamed with rashes or blisters
  • with thyroid diseases, you may have tiredness, muscle aches and weight changes

Most autoimmune diseases are long-term illnesses, and the symptoms can come and go over time. Every person will experience their illness differently.

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. Symptoms of coeliac disease include constipation, diarrhoea and stomach pain.
  • Lupus — your immune system can attack many parts of the body, including your:
    • skin
    • muscles
    • joints
    • lungs
    • heart
    • kidneys
  • Rheumatoid arthritis — most often this causes tender, swollen, and stiff joints.
  • Graves’ disease — your immune system increases activity in your thyroid gland, causing symptoms such as anxiety, heart palpitations, weight loss and irritated or bulging eyes.
  • Multiple sclerosis — the nervous system is affected, causing muscle weakness and poor coordination, sight problems and, in some cases, difficulties thinking.
  • Type 1 diabetes — the pancreas is affected and does not produce enough insulin to manage blood sugar levels. Initial symptoms can include thirst, hunger and frequent urination.

How is autoimmune disease caused?

It's not known why some people develop autoimmune diseases.

In many cases autoimmune diseases are inherited and tend to run in families.

Autoimmune diseases may be triggered by epigenetic factors (things in the environment that work with your genes). These factors include:

  • age
  • infections
  • smoking
  • nutrition
  • pollution

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you may have an autoimmune disease, see your doctor.

Talk to your doctor if you have:

  • muscle, bone, or joint pain that’s not related to an injury
  • pain in lots of areas of your body

How is autoimmune disease diagnosed?

Your doctor will investigate your symptoms closely. They will examine you and ask you about your general health. They might recommend a blood test, x-ray, MRI, biopsy, or other tests.

Your doctor might also refer you to a specialist for further investigation or advice on treatment options.

It can take a long time to diagnose an autoimmune disease. This can be because:

  • many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms
  • symptoms can be vague and come and go
  • some symptoms, like muscle aches, are common in many illnesses
  • there is often not a single test to show whether you have a certain autoimmune disease

Many people have symptoms of autoimmune disease for a long time before they seek help.

How is autoimmune disease treated?

There is no cure for autoimmune diseases, but there is a range of possible treatments.

The main aim of treatment is to reduce symptoms and to reduce damage to your organs.

Medicines called corticosteroids are often the first treatment for an autoimmune disease. They help reduce inflammation and pain.

Specific medicines and lifestyle changes can also help treat autoimmune conditions.

For example:

  • people with type 1 diabetes inject insulin
  • those with autoimmune diseases that affect the skin will get advice about the sun, bathing, creams, and lotions
  • people with coeliac disease must follow a gluten-free diet
  • movement is very important for autoimmune diseases that affect the muscles
  • quitting smoking can reduce inflammation and improve your general health

In some people, autoimmune diseases can be mild. Others will need to put in a lot of time and care in managing their condition. However, most people with autoimmune conditions are able to live a full and enjoyable life.

Resources and support

You can find organisations that support people with specific autoimmune diseases at these sites:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022

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