What is an Autoimmune Disease?

An autoimmune disease is a medical condition characterized by an overactive immune system which attacks the body, mistaking normal tissues in the body for harmful substances. A huge number of genetic and acquired conditions fall under the umbrella of autoimmune diseases, and there are a number of approaches to treatment and management. People with such conditions usually require medical treatment for life, often from a team of doctors who can provide support from several different angles of approach.

Normally, the immune system is used to identify harmful substances by locking on to antigens on their surface. Once the immune system identifies something which should not be in the body, it sends an army of white blood cells to destroy it before it has a chance to hurt the body. In people with an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly identifies part of the body as a dangerous antigen, and it begins to attack the body's own connective tissue, glands, skin, nerves, or blood vessels.

Some examples of this condition include: Wegener's disease, scleroderma, alopecia areata, multiple scelorsis, Graves' disease, Hashimoto's disase, lupus, interstitial cystitis, Crohn's disease, and Chagas disease, among many others. Some of these diseases are the result of exposure to various pathogens, while others are genetic in nature, and some simply appear one day, for no apparent reason. These conditions can cause a variety of related health problems, including fatigue, endocrine dysfunction, digestive difficulty, and changes in skin color or texture.

The first step in treatment is an accurate diagnosis to explore the cause behind the immune system's activity. Patients are also often given immunosuppressive drugs which will reduce the activity of the immune system so that it cannot cause additional damage. Supportive medications such as hormones may be used to compensate for damage caused by the immune system, and the patient may also need to engage in physical therapy, or to modify his or her diet and lifestyle to cope with changes caused by the autoimmune disease.

These diseases can be very frustrating and difficult to manage. The drugs used to control them can have serious side effects, and many patients suffer as a result of needing to take very expensive and intense drugs for their entire lives to keep the disease under control. These diseases can also cause friction in workplaces and schools as people try to lead normal lives with a chronic autoimmune disease which can sometimes make it difficult to engage in ordinary tasks.

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Post 4

Does AIDS fit anywhere on the list of autoimmune disease? Surely if it did, it would have been listed, but why isn't it there? I know it stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. If I remember right, AIDS starts out as HIV, which is a virus that somehow alters our white blood cells. Somehow this evolves into AIDS which starts making our body attack itself. Is this right? Please correct me if I am wrong.

Once the white blood cells started to attack the body, wouldn't that make it an autoimmune disease? Does it somehow not get classified here since it starts out as a virus? Does anyone have any ideas?

Post 3

@jmc88 - I have also seen increased information about Crohn's disease. I know it is one of the more common autoimmune diseases, but I don't know where it would rank on the list in terms of numbers of cases. It may be getting a lot of attention since there is very little known about what causes the disease.

What Crohn's disease is, is an inflammation of the intestinal tract. It can cause a range of digestion problems as well as ulcers and sores. Part of the problem, too, is that uptake of nutrients usually doesn't happen right, so patients have to take a lot of special supplements. From what I have heard it is extremely painful. I don't think there is any surgical treatment for the disease, either.

Post 2

I have heard of some of the diseases mentioned in the article, but I didn't know what their effect was or that they were autoimmune diseases. I hear a lot of news about Crohn's disease. Can anyone tell me what it is, and why it is mentioned so much?

Since a lot of the autoimmune disease treatments involve limiting the function of the immune system, does that mean people with these diseases are more at risk for getting sick? When they get sick, even with something like a cold, does it have the potential to be life threatening, since their bodies cannot fight it?

Along the same lines, would something like a normal vaccine be ineffective for these individuals?

Post 1

It sounds like it would be very hard to deal with one of these diseases. I don't think I would be able to cope very well with it.

Once someone gets an autoimmune disease, how is it usually diagnosed? Do all of the diseases immediately start to cause issues, or do some autoimmune diseases stay hidden in the body for a while until something triggers them to start having adverse effects?

For someone who has an autoimmune disease, will they still be able to live the rest of their life as long as they take the right medicines, or will it usually be shortened, and by how much?

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