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What are autoimmune diseases?

Our bodies have an immune system, which is a complex network of special cells and organs that defends the body from germs and other foreign invaders. At the core of the immune system is the ability to tell the difference between self and nonself: what’s you and what’s foreign. A flaw can make the body unable to tell the difference between self and nonself. When this happens, the body makes autoantibodies (AW-toh-AN-teye-bah-deez) that attack normal cells by mistake. At the same time special cells called regulatory T cells fail to do their job of keeping the immune system in line. The result is a misguided attack on your own body. This causes the damage we know as autoimmune disease. The body parts that are affected depend on the type of autoimmune disease. There are more than 80 known types.

Body parts that can be affected by autoimmune diseases

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How common are autoimmune diseases?

Overall, autoimmune diseases are common, affecting more than 23.5 million Americans. They are a leading cause of death and disability. Yet some autoimmune diseases are rare, while others, such as Hashimoto’s disease, affect many people.

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Who gets autoimmune diseases?

Did you know?

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Autoimmune diseases can affect anyone. Yet certain people are at greater risk, including:

  • Women of childbearing age — More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during their childbearing years.
  • People with a family history — Some autoimmune diseases run in families, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. It is also common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family. Inheriting certain genes can make it more likely to get an autoimmune disease. But a combination of genes and other factors may trigger the disease to start.
  • People who are around certain things in the environment — Certain events or environmental exposures may cause some autoimmune diseases, or make them worse. Sunlight, chemicals called solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
  • People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds — Some autoimmune diseases are more common or more severely affect certain groups of people more than others. For instance, type 1 diabetes is more common in white people. Lupus is most severe for African-American and Hispanic people.

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What autoimmune diseases affect women, and what are their symptoms?

The diseases listed here either are more common in women than men or affect many women and men. They are listed in A-to-Z order.

Although each disease is unique, many share hallmark symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness, and low-grade fever. For many autoimmune diseases, symptoms come and go, or can be mild sometimes and severe at others. When symptoms go away for a while, it’s called remission. Flares are the sudden and severe onset of symptoms.

http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/autoimmune-diseases.html

Types of autoimmune diseases and their symptoms

Disease

Symptoms

Alopecia areata (Al-uh-PEE-shuh AR-ee-AYT-uh)

The immune system attacks hair follicles (the structures from which hair grows). It usually does not threaten health, but it can greatly affect the way a person looks.

  • Patchy hair loss on the scalp, face, or other areas of your body

 

Antiphospholipid (an-teye-FOSS-foh-lip-ihd)antibody syndrome (aPL)

A disease that causes problems in the inner lining of blood vessels resulting in blood clots in arteries or veins.

  • Blood clots in veins or arteries
  • Multiple miscarriages
  • Lacy, net-like red rash on the wrists and knees

 

Autoimmune hepatitis

The immune system attacks and destroys the liver cells. This can lead to scarring and hardening of the liver, and possibly liver failure.

  • Fatigue
  • Enlarged liver
  • Yellowing of the skin or whites of eyes
  • Itchy skin
  • Joint pain
  • Stomach pain or upset
Celiac disease

A disease in which people can’t tolerate gluten, a substance found in wheat, rye, and barley, and also some medicines. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that have gluten, the immune system responds by damaging the lining of the small intestines.

  • Abdominal bloating and pain
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Fatigue
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • Itchy skin rash
  • Infertility or miscarriages
Diabetes type 1

A disease in which your immune system attacks the cells that make insulin, a hormone needed to control blood sugar levels. As a result, your body cannot make insulin. Without insulin, too much sugar stays in your blood. Too high blood sugar can hurt the eyes, kidneys, nerves, and gums and teeth. But the most serious problem caused by diabetes is heart disease.

  • Being very thirsty
  • Urinating often
  • Feeling very hungry or tired
  • Losing weight without trying
  • Having sores that heal slowly
  • Dry, itchy skin
  • Losing the feeling in your feet or having tingling in your feet
  • Having blurry eyesight
Graves’ disease (overactive thyroid)

A disease that causes the thyroid to make too much thyroid hormone.

  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Heat sensitivity
  • Sweating
  • Fine brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness
  • Light menstrual periods
  • Bulging eyes
  • Shaky hands
  • Sometimes there are no symptoms
Guillain-Barre (GEE-yahn bah-RAY) syndrome

The immune system attacks the nerves that connect your brain and spinal cord with the rest of your body. Damage to the nerves makes it hard for them to transmit signals. As a result, the muscles have trouble responding to the brain.

  • Weakness or tingling feeling in the legs that might spread to the upper body
  • Paralysis in severe cases

Symptoms often progress relatively quickly, over a period of days or weeks, and often occur on both sides of the body.

Hashimoto’s (hah-shee-MOH-tohz) disease(underactive thyroid)

A disease that causes the thyroid to not make enough thyroid hormone.

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Weight gain
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Muscle aches and stiff joints
  • Facial swelling
  • Constipation
Hemolytic anemia (HEE-moh-lit-ihk uh-NEE-mee-uh)

The immune system destroys the red blood cells. Yet the body can’t make new red blood cells fast enough to meet the body’s needs. As a result, your body does not get the oxygen it needs to function well, and your heart must work harder to move oxygen-rich blood throughout the body.

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Paleness
  • Yellowish skin or whites of eyes
  • Heart problems, including heart failure
Idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (id-ee-oh-PATH-ihk throm-boh-seye-toh-PEE-nik PUR-pur-uh)(ITP)

A disease in which the immune system destroys blood platelets, which are needed for blood to clot.

  • Very heavy menstrual period
  • Tiny purple or red dots on the skin that might look like a rash.
  • Easy bruising
  • Nosebleed or bleeding in the mouth
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

A disease that causes chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. Crohn’s (krohnz) disease and ulcerative colitis (UHL-sur-uh-tiv koh-LEYE-tuhss) are the most common forms of IBD.

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea, which may be bloody

Some people also have:

  • Rectal bleeding
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Mouth ulcers (in Crohn’s disease)
  • Painful or difficult bowel movements (in ulcerative colitis)
Inflammatory myopathies (meye-OP-uh-theez)

A group of diseases that involve muscle inflammation and muscle weakness. Polymyositis (pol-ee-meye-uh-SYT-uhss) and dermatomyositis (dur-muh-toh-meye-uh-SYT-uhss) are 2 types more common in women than men.

  • Slow but progressive muscle weakness beginning in the muscles closest to the trunk of the body. Polymyositis affects muscles involved with making movement on both sides of the body. With dermatomyositis, a skin rash comes before or at the same time as muscle weakness.

May also have:

  • Fatigue after walking or standing
  • Tripping or falling
  • Difficulty swallowing or breathing
Multiple sclerosis (MUHL-tip-uhl sklur-OH-suhss)(MS)

A disease in which the immune system attacks the protective coating around the nerves. The damage affects the brain and spinal cord.

  • Weakness and trouble with coordination, balance, speaking, and walking
  • Paralysis
  • Tremors
  • Numbness and tingling feeling in arms, legs, hands, and feet
  • Symptoms vary because the location and extent of each attack vary
Myasthenia gravis (meye-uhss-THEEN-ee-uh GRAV-uhss) (MG)

A disease in which the immune system attacks the nerves and muscles throughout the body.

  • Double vision, trouble keeping a steady gaze, and drooping eyelids
  • Trouble swallowing, with frequent gagging or choking
  • Weakness or paralysis
  • Muscles that work better after rest
  • Drooping head
  • Trouble climbing stairs or lifting things
  • Trouble talking
Primary biliary cirrhosis (BIL-ee-air-ee sur-ROH-suhss)

The immune system slowly destroys the liver’s bile ducts. Bile is a substance made in the liver. It travels through the bile ducts to help with digestion. When the ducts are destroyed, the bile builds up in the liver and hurts it. The damage causes the liver to harden and scar, and eventually stop working.

  • Fatigue
  • Itchy skin
  • Dry eyes and mouth
  • Yellowing of skin and whites of eyes
Psoriasis (suh-REYE-uh-suhss)

A disease that causes new skin cells that grow deep in your skin to rise too fast and pile up on the skin surface.

  • Thick red patches, covered with scales, usually appearing on the head, elbows, and knees
  • Itching and pain, which can make it hard to sleep, walk, and care for yourself

May have:

  • A form of arthritis that often affects the joints and the ends of the fingers and toes. Back pain can occur if the spine is involved.
Rheumatoid arthritis (ROO-muh-toid ar-THREYE-tuhss)

A disease in which the immune system attacks the lining of the joints throughout the body.

  • Painful, stiff, swollen, and deformed joints
  • Reduced movement and function

May have:

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Eye inflammation
  • Lung disease
  • Lumps of tissue under the skin, often the elbows
  • Anemia
Scleroderma (sklair-oh-DUR-muh)

A disease causing abnormal growth of connective tissue in the skin and blood vessels.

  • Fingers and toes that turn white, red, or blue in response to heat and cold
  • Pain, stiffness, and swelling of fingers and joints
  • Thickening of the skin
  • Skin that looks shiny on the hands and forearm
  • Tight and mask-like facial skin
  • Sores on the fingers or toes
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Shortness of breath
Sjögren’s (SHOH-grins) syndrome

A disease in which the immune system targets the glands that make moisture, such as tears and saliva.

  • Dry eyes or eyes that itch
  • Dryness of the mouth, which can cause sores
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Loss of sense of taste
  • Severe dental cavities
  • Hoarse voice
  • Fatigue
  • Joint swelling or pain
  • Swollen glands
  • Cloudy eyes
Systemic lupus erythematosus (LOO-puhss ur-ih-thee-muh-TOH-suhss)

A disease that can damage the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, and other parts of the body. Also called SLE or lupus.

  • Fever
  • Weight loss
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Fatigue
  • “Butterfly” rash across the nose and cheeks
  • Rashes on other parts of the body
  • Painful or swollen joints and muscle pain
  • Sensitivity to the sun
  • Chest pain
  • Headache, dizziness, seizure, memory problems, or change in behavior
Vitiligo (vit-ihl-EYE-goh)

The immune system destroys the cells that give your skin its color. It also can affect the tissue inside your mouth and nose.

  • White patches on areas exposed to the sun, or on armpits, genitals, and rectum
  • Hair turns gray early
  • Loss of color inside your mouth
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