Autoimmune disease refers to a massive range of conditions in which the immune system, whose function is to protect the body against invasions by viruses or bacteria, wrongly attacks the body, its cells, or certain organs. Research continues to explore what causes the immune system to react in this way, what diseases are considered autoimmune, and how they are related. According to the Autoimmune Association, there are more than 100 autoimmune diseases. Below is a summary of some of the diseases addressed in this issue.
Autoimmune autonomic ganglionopathy is a rare disease in which the body’s immune system attacks its autonomic nervous system. Symptoms can include severe orthostatic hypotension (low blood pressure upon standing), fainting, constipation, fixed and dilated pupils, urinary retention, and dry mouth and eyes.
Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, and rye. The reaction can damage the lining of the small intestine and prevent it from absorbing nutrients. Symptoms include diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating, and anemia.
Graves’ disease is the most common cause of hyperthyroidism, or the overproduction of thyroid hormones. Symptoms can include anxiety, hand tremors, heat sensitivity, weight loss, changes in menstrual cycles, reduced libido, frequent bowel movements, fatigue, rapid or irregular heartbeat, or disturbed sleep.
Hashimoto’s disease occurs when the immune system attacks the thyroid. It is the most common cause of hypothyroidism, or an underactive thyroid. Symptoms can include fatigue, sluggishness, cold sensitivity, constipation, hair loss, enlargement of the tongue, weight gain, muscle aches and weakness, joint pain, excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding, depression, and memory lapses.
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term that describes several disorders involving chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. They include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
• Crohn’s disease typically appears somewhere throughout the large or small intestine, causing inflammation and sores, but can affect any area of the digestive tract, from the mouth to the anus. It is characterized by abdominal pain, severe diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, malnutrition, bloody stools, and fistulas.
• Ulcerative colitis causes inflammation and sores in the digestive tract, typically in the colon or rectum. Symptoms include diarrhea, sometimes with blood or mucus, abdominal pain, rectal pain and bleeding, weight loss, fatigue, and fever.
Lupus occurs when the immune system attacks the body’s tissues and organs. It can affect many bodily systems, including the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs. One of the most distinctive signs that occurs in many cases is a facial rash shaped like butterfly wings that spreads across the cheeks. Other symptoms can include fatigue, fever, joint pain, skin lesions, shortness of breath, chest pain, dry eyes, headaches, confusion, and memory loss.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) occurs when the immune system attacks the covering of nerve fibers, affecting communication between the brain and the body and, over the long term, causing permanent damage to the nerves. Symptoms can include numbness or weakness in the limbs, electric-shock sensations, tremors, lack of coordination, vision problems, slurred speech, fatigue, dizziness, or problems with sexual, bowel, or bladder function.
Plaque psoriasis is the most common form of the autoimmune skin disease psoriasis. It causes raised, dry, red patches of skin that can be covered with silvery scales. The areas, called plaques, can be itchy or tender. They generally appear on the elbows, knees, lower back, or scalp.
Psoriatic arthritis is a form of arthritis that affects about a third of people with psoriasis. In addition to red patches and silvery scales on the skin, people experience joint pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect not only the lining of the joints but, in some cases, the skin, eyes, lungs, heart, and blood vessels. Symptoms can include painful, warm, or swollen joints; joint stiffness, especially in the morning or after periods of inactivity; fatigue; fever; and loss of appetite.
Sjogren’s syndrome affects mucous membranes and moisture-secreting glands, causing dry eyes and a dry mouth. It often accompanies other autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
Systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis is the least common form of juvenile idiopathic arthritis and the most severe, causing pain, swelling, and stiffness in multiple joints, as well as fevers, swollen lymph nodes, and rashes. Its most serious potential complication is macrophage activation syndrome, a massive inflammatory response that affects the entire body and can be fatal. When this arthritis condition is developed in adulthood, it is called Still’s disease.
Type 1 diabetes, which has also been known as juvenile diabetes or insulin-dependent diabetes, typically appears during childhood or adolescence but can also develop in adults. The condition is characterized by the failure of the pancreas to produce insulin. Symptoms can include increased thirst, frequent urination, the development of bed-wetting, extreme hunger, weight loss, mood changes, fatigue, weakness, and blurred vision.
Undifferentiated connective tissue disease is related to other connective tissue diseases or CTDs (conditions affecting the body’s tissues, like rheumatoid arthritis or lupus) but doesn’t meet their diagnostic criteria. Symptoms can include Raynaud’s syndrome (decreased blood flow to the extremities), arthritis, joint pain, fever, dry eyes or mouth, ulcers in the mouth, sensitivity to sunlight, hair loss, or other symptoms that affect the lungs, heart, muscles, or nervous system.