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What Is an Overactive Immune System?

A diagram showing different types of white blood cells, an important part of the immune system.
Rheumatoid arthritis is one commonly known result of an overactive immune system.
Red blood cells are commonly targeted by an overactive immune system.
It's common for an overactive immune system to attack the endocrine glands.
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  • Written By: Marlene de Wilde
  • Edited By: Nancy Fann-Im
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2014
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An overactive immune system, or autoimmune disorder, is when the immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue rather than the antigens it is supposed to target. Tissue damage, organ damage and changes in organ function are some of the results of autoimmune diseases. There are more than 60 conditions that are the result of an overactive immune system, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Treatment depends on the condition, many of which are chronic.

The immune system is normally a very efficient defense against harmful substances, or antigens, like bacteria, viruses and bacteria. Exactly why it sometimes goes into overdrive and starts attacking healthy tissue is unknown, but the condition is thought to involve microorganisms such as bacteria, stress, diet, hormonal influences and drugs, especially when one or more of these factors are combined with a genetic predisposition.

The onset of an overactive immune system is frequently preceded by a bacterial or viral infection, but this does not mean that everyone who gets an infection will develop the condition. For this reason, there must be other factors or pre-conditions. Sometimes an antigen will have certain similarities to healthy tissue and the immune system confuses the two, or there may be a malfunction in the action of the white blood cells that produces antibodies.

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The immune response results in a hypersensitivity reaction much like that which occurs in an allergy. The most commonly affected organs and tissues are the red blood cells, blood vessels, connective tissues, endocrine glands, muscles, joints and skin. The symptoms of an overactive immune system depend on the disease but usually have in common dizziness, fatigue and a fever. Other consequences include anemia, thyroid conditions, shortness of breath, muscle weakness and joint pain. Prognosis is good in some cases, especially when the condition has been diagnosed in the early stages, while in others it can be fatal.

Autoimmune diseases are not very common but are much more likely to occur in women than men. For this reason, hormones are suspected as one of the main causes, triggers or factors in either the onset or perseverance of the condition. Treatment depends on whether the course chosen is conventional or alternative. Conventional medicine favors drugs like corticosteroids, which are anti-inflammatory and immune suppressive, which means that there could be some major side effects. Alternative treatments include adaptogenic herbs such as reishi mushrooms, American ginseng and licorice.

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