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Autoimmune Diseases – Causes, Types, and Symptoms

The term autoimmune disease refers to a family of more than 80 illnesses that affect up to 23.5 million people only within the United States.[1]The diseases are grouped together because they share the same pathogenesis[2], i.e., the abnormal activity of the body’s immune system. Simply put, autoimmune disease is a condition that develops when the immune system mistakenly starts to attack healthy cells and tissues of the body.

What Causes an Autoimmune Disease?

We have limited information regarding the cause of autoimmune disorders. We know that the diseases are the result of immune system malfunctioning that hampers its ability to differentiate between foreign bodies (bacteria and viruses) and the body’s own cells. However, we don’t know what exactly causes this defect or malfunction in the immune system.

Researchers have identified a few factors that they believe increase the likelihood of some people to develop an autoimmune disease, at some stage of their lives. These include:

· Genetics

Based on the observation that some autoimmune diseases often run in families, scientists have developed the hypothesis that the presence of certain genes can make people predisposed to developing autoimmune disorders. However, they are still working to identify those genes.

Some NIH-supported research studies have identified a few genetic variants related to vitiligo and lupus.[3] However, they need to be further studied before we can reach a conclusion.

· Environmental Factors

Available research evidence has led scientists to believe that increased exposure to certain environmental factors can both initiate and exacerbate autoimmune diseases. These essentially include toxic chemicals and various bacterial and viral infections.

· Gender

Bot research studies and statistics show that women are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases than men. According to the John Hopkins Medicine website, about 80% of the Americans suffering from autoimmune disorders are women. While healthcare specialists aren’t sure what makes women more predisposed to the malfunctioning of the immune system, one theory suggests that it can be due to higher levels of certain hormones.

This hypothesis is based on the observation that many women start to develop an autoimmune disorder during the childbearing years.

· Racial or Ethnic Backgrounds

Scientists also believe that your racial or ethnic background can also predispose you to a particular autoimmune disorder. This notion is based on the observations that some autoimmune diseases are more common in certain ethnic groups. For example, lupus is more common and often more chronic in Africa-Americans and people of Hispanic origin. Similarly, type 1 diabetes is more common among white people in the United States.

Types of Autoimmune Diseases

At the article’s beginning, we mentioned that there are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. While we cannot list all of them, here are the most common ones:

· Type 1 diabetes

· Psoriasis

· Rheumatoid arthritis

· Inflammatory bowel disease

· Multiple sclerosis

· Systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly referred to as lupus.

· Addison’s disease

· Celiac disease

Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases

Since there are several different types of autoimmune disorders, and they affect different parts of the body, their symptoms can vary. However, many autoimmune diseases produce a similar set of symptoms during the early stage of the illness.

Some of the early symptoms that are common to many autoimmune disorders include:

· Fatigue

· Muscle ache or soreness

· Swelling and redness on different areas of the body

· Skin rashes

· Low-grade fever

· Tingling and/or numbness in the hands and feet

· Hair loss

Many autoimmune diseases also have periods of flare-ups and remissions.

The Sum Up

Autoimmune disorders are a large family of diseases that can affect various parts and organs of your body. However, all of them develop as a result of malfunctioning in the body’s immune system. Researchers have long been studying the underlying factors that cause the immune-mediated attack; however, they have not yet reached a definitive conclusion. In other words, autoimmune diseases are an ongoing area of research. Scientists are still working to develop a thorough understanding of the diseases to develop better preventive and treatment methods.

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