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What is an Autoimmune Disorder?

An autoimmune disorder happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks the tissues of its own body, causing symptoms of illness. There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders. While some are very rare, others are fairly common. Combined, autoimmune disorders are one of the leading causes of death and disability in the United States, affecting approximately 24 million people.

A properly working immune system identifies foreign substances in the body that might cause illness, such as bacteria and viruses. The immune system then creates antibodies which attack the foreign substances, neutralizing them and keeping the body safe. In people with autoimmune disorders, something goes wrong with this process. For reasons we don’t understand very well, the immune system creates antibodies to attack the patient’s own tissues.

Symptoms of an autoimmune disorder depend on which tissue is being attacked by the immune system, but common symptoms of autoimmune disease include fever, fatigue, and a general feeling of just not being well. Autoimmune disorders are more common in women than in men, and they may run in families. Autoimmune disorders can affect various parts of the body such as blood vessels, connective tissue, endocrine glands, joints, muscles, red blood cells, skin, and many others.

It is common to have more than one autoimmune disorder at a time. Most are chronic, or life-long illnesses, although they may come and go in flares. Treatment for autoimmune disorders depends on which part of the body is being attacked. For example:
  • A type 1 diabetic whose pancreas has been damaged will need insulin.
  • A person with Hashimoto’s whose thyroid has been damaged will need replacement thyroid hormones.
  • Someone with Sjogren’s syndrome will need eye drops and mouth rinses to replace tears and saliva.
Many autoimmune disorders of all kinds are treated with immune-suppressing medications, such as corticosteroids (e.g. prednisone) to reduce the effect of the immune system.