March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, and to commemorate the month, we wanted to do a brief overview of autoimmune disease, and summarize some key points about this large, but often misunderstood category of conditions and diseases.
Your immune system’s job is to protect you against infections, toxins, and invaders — everything from bacteria, to viruses, to allergens. When the immune system encounters something that could be potentially harmful, it mounts a defense to help kill or overcome the “invader,” and protect the body.
For a number of reasons — many which are not yet understood — the immune system can malfunction and get confused. It then starts identifying our own organs, tissues, and glands as invaders, and attacks them, causing inflammation, and in some cases, destruction.
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), 50 million Americans — 20 percent of the population, or one in five people — suffer from autoimmune diseases. These diseases predominantly strike women, who suffer about 75 percent of all autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases are more common during childbearing years, and frequently appear in women who have just had a baby, after periods of high emotional or physical stress or accidents, during periods of hormonal change such as perimenopause, or after starting birth control pills or hormone replacement therapy.
Autoimmune diseases also can run in families. If a close family member has an autoimmune disease, your risk of developing any autoimmune disease — not just the same condition that your family member has — is also somewhat increased.
Having an autoimmune disease also slightly increases your own risk of developing another autoimmune condition.
Autoimmune diseases can affect many different areas of the body.
In the United States, the most common autoimmune diseases are thyroid diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves’ disease. Other common autoimmune diseases include: Type 1 Diabetes, Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), Rheumatoid Arthritis, Celiac Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, Addison’s Disease, Cushing’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Alopecia, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), and Sjogren’s Syndrome. Some practitioners also consider Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia to be autoimmune in nature as well as they reflect immune dysfunction, and are more common along with other autoimmune diseases.
There are hundreds of risk factors and symptoms for autoimmune disease, and a closer look at them can help pinpoint and close in on more specific conditions. But across the board for the estimated 100+ autoimmune diseases (AARDA has a detailed list online), there are a number of symptoms that are common to many of the different autoimmune diseases, including:
- Joint and muscle pain
- General muscle weakness
- Greater susceptibility to infections, slower recovery from infections
- Frequent rashes of unknown origin
- Regular fatigue, debilitating fatigue
- Chronic low-grade fever of unknown origin
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Dry eyes
- Dry mouth
- Hair loss
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Unexplained weight changes
- Recurrent miscarriage
- Mood changes, unexplained depression
- Concentration and memory problems
If you have any of these symptoms, be sure to ask your physician about the possibility of autoimmune disease. And if you have a family history of autoimmune disease, or have an autoimmune disease yourself, it’s particularly important that you make your physician aware of this important piece of your medical background.