Autoimmune diseases are those that occur when the immune system reacts abnormally and attacks its own body. Proteins called antibodies, produced by white blood cells, are used to identify and destroy foreign bacteria or viruses. When normal substances are mistaken for foreign, the antibodies end up attacking the body and causing an autoimmune disease.
The cause of autoimmune diseases is not known, but is believed to be affected by exposure to microorganisms or other environmental causes. These diseases are more common in women, who account for 75 percent of cases. Some people may be genetically predisposed to autoimmune diseases.
There are more than 150 different autoimmune diseases. Some attack certain specific organs while others affect multiple organs or the entire body. They can be mild or life-threatening, but every disease is rooted in an immune system malfunction. The common symptoms among these diseases include fatigue, dizziness, malaise and fever.
The most common types of autoimmune diseases are:
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) - RA is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It most commonly affects the wrists, fingers, knees, feet and ankles and causes muscle aches, stiffness and joint pain. RA affects over 2.5 million people in US.
- Lupus - Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects the entire body. Mild cases of lupus can primarily affect the skin, causing skin rash, mouth sores and hair loss. Most people also experience joint pain and swelling, fatigue and fever. There are over 16,000 new cases of lupus each year and it most commonly affects women between the ages of 15 and 45.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS) - MS is an autoimmune disease that affects the nervous system and causes loss of muscle control, vision, balance and sensation. The immune system attacks the myelin sheath, which is the protective coating that surrounds nerve fibers. Without the protection, the nerves become inflamed and symptoms form and worsen as the disease progresses.
- Scleroderma - Scleroderma is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes fibrosis, or hardening of the skin and its connective tissues. Mild cases can cause skin deformities while more severe cases can affect internal organs including the joints, lungs and kidneys. About 100,000 Americans suffer from scleroderma.
Other types of autoimmune diseases include diabetes, celiac disease, dermatomyositis, Addison's disease and Grave's disease.
Thyroid disease is a common condition that occurs when the thyroid gland does not produce the proper amount of hormones needed by the body. Thyroid hormones help regulate the body's heart rate, temperature and metabolism. A malfunctioning gland may be producing too much or too little of these hormones for a number of different reasons, such as an autoimmune disease, exposure to radiation, reaction to medication or pregnancy.
Hyperthyroidism is an overproduction of thyroid hormones, while hypothyroidism is an underproduction. Although these are different conditions, both can lead to enlargement of the thyroid gland, heart problems and other complications. Treatment for thyroid conditions usually includes medication to increase or decrease hormone production, or surgery to remove part or all of the thyroid gland.
Alopecia, or hair loss, is a common condition caused by a number of reasons. Hair loss can be natural, a side effect of medication or signs of another health condition. It can result in total baldness, patchy bald spots or thinning of the hair, and may be confined to the scalp or affect other areas of the body. Some of the causes of alopecia include:
- Male pattern baldness
- Fungal infection of the scalp
- Trichotillomania (mental disorder that causes a person to pull out his or her own hair)
- Thyroid disorders
Treatment for hair loss is usually based on the cause but can include completion of chemotherapy, treating infections, drug therapy like Rogaine and Proscar or hair transplant plugs.
Contact our office to learn more about Autoimmune Disorders or to make an appointment.