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There are millions of bacteria, virus, parasites and other microorganisms that attack the human body to feed on it. Our immune system fights off all these invaders and is therefore essential for our survival.

White blood cells are the main soldiers of our immune system. They help in fighting the invaders (the microorganisms) that enter any system of the body.

Here's how it works normally: when a foreign body like a bacteria enters our bloodstream, the immune system gets activated. The immune system treats the foreign body as an enemy or antigen and forms an "antibody" against it. An antibody fights with the antigen and kills it before the microorganism can cause infection.

An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the immune system starts seeing parts of the body as foreign and produces antibodies against them. The antibodies start killing the healthy tissues of the body, leading to many untreatable diseases.

There is no cure for autoimmune diseases but their symptoms can be managed with the help of various treatments.

  1. Common autoimmune diseases
  2. What causes autoimmune diseases
  3. Autoimmune disease diagnosis
  4. Autoimmune disease treatment
  5. Doctors for Autoimmune Disease

Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is also known as insulin-dependent diabetes. It is an autoimmune disease where the immune system of the body starts killing the pancreatic cells responsible for making insulin. This results in an increase in blood sugar levels.

The common symptoms of type 1 diabetes are: 

Pernicious anaemia

Vitamin B12 helps in the production of energy in the body. It is essential for proper brain functioning and for the synthesis of red blood cells. For the absorption of vitamin B12, the body requires intrinsic factor, a glycoprotein released by the stomach for this purpose. 

In pernicious anaemia, the body forms antibodies against the parietal cells which line the stomach and make intrinsic factor. These antibodies destroy the parietal cells, thus making it impossible for the stomach to make the intrinsic factor. The common symptoms of pernicious anaemia are:

Rheumatoid arthritis

Any two bones of the body meet at a joint. Every joint is held in place by a thick fluid-filled capsule called the synovium. Synovium protects the bones and joints from sudden jerks and trauma.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body’s immune system starts producing inflammation in one or more joints.

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis:

You might also be interested in: Exercises for arthritis

Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a medical condition marked by chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract, which starts from the mouth, goes to the oesophagus (food pipe), stomach, small intestine, large intestine, and ends at the anus.

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are types of IBD which damage the gastrointestinal tract. Ulcerative colitis is limited to the colon (the large intestine) while Crohn's disease can occur anywhere between the mouth and the anus.

The common symptoms of IBD are:

Read more: Exercises for irritable bowel syndrome

Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a neurologic (nerve-related) pain issue. The pain can be triggered due to any physical or emotional stress. It can be genetically transferred.

The common symptoms of fibromyalgia:

  • Muscle stiffness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle spasm
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Widespread pain and tenderness
  • Headaches

Read more: Ayurvedic remedies for body pain

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is an autoimmune condition where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland and destroys it gradually. Since the thyroid gland cannot make thyroid hormone anymore, it leads to hypothyroidism.

The symptoms of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are:

Read more: Yoga for thyroid problems

Grave’s disease causes hyperthyroidism

Grave’s disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid gland in such a way that it starts releasing an excessive amount of thyroid hormone in the blood. This leads to hyperthyroidism.

The symptoms of Grave’s disease are:

  • Extreme tiredness
  • Inability to tolerate heat
  • Weight loss
  • Diarrhoea
  • Trembling of hands
  • Irritability
  • Weakness

Myasthenia gravis causes muscle weakness

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease where the muscles of the skeletal system weaken with time. Although myasthenia gravis can affect any skeletal muscle, facial muscles are most commonly involved. The affected person may suffer from weakness in the arms, hands, fingers, legs, and neck. 

The thymus gland present in the chest controls the immune system and is associated with myasthenia gravis. The gland normally grows till puberty and then gets smaller with time, but in some people, it remains enlarged.

Sometimes people with myasthenia gravis develop a tumour on their thymus gland which is known as thymoma.

The common symptoms of myasthenia gravis are:

  • Inability to smile due to drooping of the mouth
  • Slurring of speech
  • Drooping of one or both the eyelids (medically called ptosis)
  • Blurred vision due to weakening of eye muscles
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Shortness of breath

Psoriasis affects the skin cells

Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the skin cells and makes them grow at a faster rate. It can affect the scalp, face, hands, feet, nails and genitals. 

The common symptoms of psoriasis are:

  • Red patchy skin
  • Burning sensation on the skin
  • Crusted plaques on the scalp and skin

Vitiligo or milky patches on the skin

Vitiligo is an autoimmune condition where the person loses skin colour from different parts of the body. This happens because the immune system attacks the melanocytes which provide colour to the skin. It can also be seen in people who have a family history of vitiligo.

The common symptoms of vitiligo are:

  • White milky patterns on hands, feet, face and arms.
  • Hair of the scalp, beard, eyebrows and eyelashes turn white.

Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a serious autoimmune condition in which the brain is unable to give signals to the body. In this condition, the immune system attacks the myelin sheath, a layer that covers and protects the nerve cells (neurons). 

The common symptoms of multiple sclerosis are:

  • Fatigue
  • Blurred vision
  • Muscle spasm
  • Difficulty in balancing and coordination
  • Difficulty in walking
  • Inability to control the bladder (urinary incontinence)
  • Difficulty in planning and remembering things

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) affects the connective tissues

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus is an autoimmune disease where the immune system causes inflammation in the connective tissues of the body. Normally, these tissues provide strength and flexibility to various organs of the body. Therefore, this condition affects the joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels.

The symptoms of SLE are:

Sjogren’s syndrome

Sjogren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease where the immune system affects the glands of the body that produce fluids like tears and saliva.

There is a triad of symptoms that are seen in people with Sjogren’s syndrome:

  • Keratoconjunctivitis: Drying of eyes
  • Xerostomia: Drying of mouth
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: Pain and swelling in different joints of the body

Addison's disease

Addison’s disease is also known as primary adrenal insufficiency. It is an autoimmune condition where the adrenal gland (present on top of each kidney) gets damaged by the immune system of the body and stops producing cortisol. Cortisol hormone helps in preventing the body from going into shock during stressful situations.

The common symptoms of Addison’s disease are:

  • Prolonged fatigue
  • Muscle weakness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Weight loss
  • Abdominal pain

Celiac disease is triggered by gluten

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where if the affected person consumes gluten, their immune system starts attacking the small intestine. Gluten is a protein which is present in wheat, barley and rye.

The common digestive symptoms of celiac disease are seen in children: 

The more severe symptoms that can be seen in adults are: 

  • Anaemia
  • Ulcers in mouth
  • Joint pains
  • Headache
  • Tingling sensation in hands and feet
  • Extreme tiredness

What causes autoimmune diseases

An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks different parts of the body like the skin cells, specific glands and even skin pigments, mistaking them for foreign bodies (antigens).

This is a deviation from the norm, where the immune system prevents infections by forming antibodies against the foreign bodies (pathogens) that cause infection: in this scenario, the antibodies only kill the foreign bodies. By contrast, in the case of an autoimmune disease, the immune system starts killing the good cells of the body. 

Though we don't know the reason for this change in how the immune system behaves, some scientists believe it happens because of some change in the gene structure.

Autoimmune disease diagnosis

Autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose but there are certain ways to diagnose the diseases based on the symptoms in a person:

  • Complete blood count (CBC): The complete blood count test will help in determining the number of red blood cells and white blood cells in the body. This can tell if a person has infection markers in the blood.
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR): The ESR test will help in determining the amount of inflammation in the body.
  • Antinuclear antibody test: The ANA (antinuclear antibody) test will help in determining the antibodies which are attacking the nucleus (the part of the cell which contains DNA) of the cells of your body.
  • Autoantibody test: This test is used to test the self-attacking antibodies.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP): The CRP (C-reactive protein) test helps in indicating inflammation in the body.
  • Urinalysis: A urine test helps to diagnose some autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes.

Autoimmune disease treatment

There is no permanent cure for autoimmune diseases. The treatment of some of the most common autoimmune diseases is based on giving symptomatic relief:

  • Lifelong insulin therapy is given to a person with type 1 diabetes.
  • Pernicious anaemia can be treated with the help of vitamin B12 shots and pills.
  • Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) like methotrexate and leflunomide can be given along with NSAIDs (etoricoxib) and corticosteroids to deal with the pain and swelling of joints in rheumatoid arthritis.
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease can be treated with the help of various medications like aminosalicylates and corticosteroids (such as prednisone) which help in reducing the inflammation of the intestines. Immunomodulators can be given to improve the immune system of the body.
  • Doctors may prescribe antidepressants like amitriptyline or duloxetine and painkillers like paracetamol or tramadol (for severe pain) for the treatment of fibromyalgia.
  • A person with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis would have to take levothyroxine supplements to maintain the level of thyroid hormone in the body.
  • Radioiodine therapy is the most widely used treatment for Grave’s disease as it slowly kills the overproductive cells of the thyroid gland. Other than that, beta-blocker drugs are used to alleviate the symptoms of hyperthyroidism. Anti-thyroid medications can help in reducing the level of thyroid hormone in the body.
  • Thymectomy (surgical removal of the thymus gland) is one of the ways to manage myasthenia gravis. It can also be managed by anticholinesterase drugs such as Mestinon or pyridostigmine which improves the communication between nerves and muscle. Immunosuppressants like prednisolone and tacrolimus are used to stop the production of self-attacking antibodies.
  • Psoriasis can be managed with the help of topical antifungals, coal tar extracts, topical corticosteroids in shampoos and soaps.
  • The treatment for vitiligo aims at stopping and delaying the disease. The treatment options involve light therapy and medicated creams to get the colour back on the patchy white skin.
  • Celiac disease can be easily managed by taking a gluten-free diet. The person would have to avoid food and medicinal products that contain gluten.
  • There is no treatment for multiple sclerosis but the quality of life can be improved with the help of physiotherapy, occupational therapy, antidepressants and other medications like gabapentin or baclofen.
  • Since systemic lupus erythematosus affects multiple organs, the treatment approach is also multifactorial. Usually, hydroxychloroquine and corticosteroids (prednisone) are used for the treatment of SLE.
  • Addison’s disease is managed by hormonal therapy where the cortisol hormone is replaced by a corticosteroid like hydrocortisone, which is taken orally three times a day.
  • The eye symptoms of the Sjogren’s syndrome are managed with the help of eye ointments and lubricants. For dry mouth, lozenges are given along with saliva substitutes. Medications like DMARDs and NSAIDs are given for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis.
Dr. Sarabjeet Kaur

Dr. Sarabjeet Kaur

General Physician
7 Years of Experience

Dr. Anil Sharma Gautam

Dr. Anil Sharma Gautam

General Physician
5 Years of Experience

Dr. Aminul Khan

Dr. Aminul Khan

General Physician
22 Years of Experience

Dr. Kalpana Sharma

Dr. Kalpana Sharma

General Physician
1 Years of Experience

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