by Kimberly Allen, RN
According to the Autoimmune Related Disease Association or AARDA auto immune diseases affect more than 50 million people in the US. While autoimmune diseases affect both males and females approximately 75% of those suffering with one of these diseases is women. Autoimmune disorders are one to the top 10 leading causes of death in females under 65 years of age.
There are over 80 different types of autoimmune diseases some are more common than others. The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is not known,however, they do tend to run in families. There are also several theories about potential triggers for autoimmune diseases including bacterial and viral infections and drugs as well as chemical and environmental irritants. There are also some autoimmune disorders that are more common in certain races and ethnic groups, like type 1 diabetes is more common in Caucasians while lupus is more severe in African Americans and Hispanics.
Our immune system is made of specialized cells and organs that are responsible for protecting our bodies from allergens and invaders. In order to effectively defend our bodies our immune system has to recognize what belongs to our body and what doesn’t belong. Autoimmune diseases develop when your immune system is unable to tell the difference between what belongs and what doesn’t. It is the responsibility of the T cells to regulate our immune systems. When the T cells malfunction the immune system is unable to determine what belongs and what doesn’t. When this occurs your immune system produces antibodies to attack your body’s own tissues. What type of autoimmune disorder develops depends on the type of tissue in your body that is affected.
Because there are so many different types of autoimmune diseases the symptoms can vary from person to person depending on the type of disorder you have. Although each autoimmune disorder is unique many of them share some of the same symptoms. On top of that many of the symptoms of autoimmune disorders are the same as symptoms you would experience with other health conditions making it difficult for health care providers to determine whether or not you have an autoimmune disorder. So how do you know if you have an autoimmune disorder? There are certain symptoms that are usually related to an autoimmune disorder including joint pain, muscle pain and/or weakness, heat or cold intolerance, hives or rashes that are recurrent, fatigue and unexplained weight loss or weight gain as well as hair loss or white patches on your skin are a few of the symptoms that you might experience if you have developed an autoimmune disorder.
If you are experiencing symptoms that concern you or that you aren’t sure why you are experiencing them it’s important to find the cause. Remember finding the cause isn’t always as easy as it may sound. However, there are some things you can do that will help your doctor determine the cause. First write down a complete and honest family medical history, including extended family. It is also important to document all symptoms you experience, even if you don’t think they’re important or related. Then talk to your family doctor to discuss the possibilities. Then see a doctor that specializes in the type of autoimmune disorder your symptoms indicate is the problem. For example, if your joints are inflamed, red and painful you would want to see a rhuematologist or if you are experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms indicative of inflammatory bowel disease you would want to see a gastroenterologist. Lastly, if you are not satisfied or you believe the doctor you see is not taking your symptoms seriously get another opinion and another and another until you are satisfied the doctor is taking you seriously and you feel comfortable that his/her treatment plan for your individual case .
While there are very few autoimmune disorders that can be cured there are medications available that can effectively treat the symptoms of most autoimmune disorders and improve your quality of life.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.