Autoimmune diseases are a category of conditions where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body as if they were foreign invaders, like viruses or bacteria. Normally, the immune system is able to distinguish between its own cells and those that are foreign. In autoimmune diseases, this system fails, leading to tissue damage and illness.
There are many types of autoimmune diseases, each affecting different parts of the body. Here are some examples:
- Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system produces inflammation in the joints, causing pain, swelling, and eventually potential damage to the joint structure.
- Type 1 diabetes: The immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, which leads to high blood sugar levels.
- Psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis: In psoriasis, the immune system speeds up the growth cycle of skin cells, causing a rapid buildup of skin cells on the surface of the skin. Psoriatic arthritis is a condition in which individuals with psoriasis also develop joint inflammation.
- Multiple sclerosis: The immune system attacks the protective covering of nerve fibers (myelin) in the central nervous system, causing communication issues between your brain and the rest of your body.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus): This is a complex disorder where the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues and organs, including the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.
- Inflammatory bowel disease: This term mainly refers to two conditions—Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis—where the immune system attacks the lining of the digestive tract.
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: In this disease, the immune system attacks the thyroid gland, reducing its ability to produce thyroid hormones.
- Graves’ disease: Another autoimmune disorder of the thyroid, but in this case, the immune system stimulates the thyroid gland, causing it to produce too much thyroid hormone.
- Celiac disease: In people with celiac disease, ingestion of gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye) triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the small intestine.
The exact cause of why the immune system starts attacking healthy cells in the body is still largely unknown, but it is believed to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Treatment for autoimmune diseases generally focuses on reducing immune system activity, often with corticosteroids or other immune-suppressing medications.