June 14, 2022
6 min. read

7 Common Autoimmune Diseases and How to Spot Them

Medly

Good to Know:

  • Autoimmune diseases occur when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body.
  • It’s important to recognize potential symptoms of an autoimmune disease. Diagnosing an autoimmune disorder can be complicated, and discussing any symptoms with your healthcare provider can help make the process easier.
  • Autoimmune diseases require ongoing management, but you can still lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

 

What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune disorders are a little bit like allergies, in which your immune system mistakenly attacks a harmless substance like pet dander or pollen—only instead of harmless foreign cells, the cells are your own.

Fast Facts: There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases, with some sources estimating numbers over 100.

Simply put, autoimmune diseases are the result of a confused immune system. Normally, your immune system protects your body, fighting against foreign cells like bacteria, viruses, and even cancer cells. But for reasons that are still unclear, an autoimmune disorder is the result of your immune system attacking otherwise normal, healthy cells in the body. 

These are seven of the most commonly diagnosed autoimmune disorders in the U.S., as well as what symptoms to look out for.

Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye—their body responds with an immune reaction inside their small intestine. This causes damage to the small intestine lining, which can lead to malabsorption of certain nutrients. Celiac disease can develop at any age, and it’s most common in people of European descent.

Fast Facts: Gluten can be found in products other than foods, including lip balm, medicine, vitamins, and glues on envelopes and stamps.

Celiac disease: Signs & symptoms

  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Indigestion
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Unexplained weight loss

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease causes inflammation within your digestive tract. It’s a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), similar to ulcerative colitis.

While Chron’s disease can develop at any age, it’s more likely to develop in people in their 20s. Many areas of the digestive tract can be affected by inflammation with Chron’s disease. Chron’s disease can lead to other serious health conditions, but with proper treatment, patients can manage Crohn’s disease and improve their quality of life. 

Crohn’s disease: Signs & symptoms

  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Stomach cramps and stomach pain
  • Weight loss

Fast Facts: High-fiber foods or carbonated drinks can sometimes make Crohn’s disease symptoms worse.

Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to attack healthy tissues. Lupus can affect many different parts of your body, including your skin, joints, kidneys, blood vessels, heart, lungs, and brain. The most common form is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus erythematosus. Its effects can range from mild to severe.

Women are more likely to get lupus than men. Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian women are more likely to develop lupus. Black and Hispanic women are more likely to develop severe forms of lupus.

Lupus: Signs & symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Hair loss
  • Joint or muscle pain 
  • Red rashes, especially a “butterfly rash” on the face
  • Swelling in the legs
  • Swelling around the eyes
  • Sun sensitivity
  • Swollen glands, joints, or muscles

Fast Facts: Symptoms of lupus often come and go. When you experience lupus symptoms, it’s known as a flare.

Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is an autoimmune disease that affects your central nervous system, or your brain and spinal cord. Your nerve cells are protected by a covering called the myelin sheath. In MS, inflammation causes damage to the myelin sheath. This can slow down nerve signals or stop them entirely.

MS is more common in women than men, but anyone can develop it. And while diagnosis is most common between age 20 and age 40, it can be seen at any age.

Multiple sclerosis: Signs & symptoms

MS attacks cause symptoms, and these attacks can happen in several different parts of the body. Symptoms of MS will vary depending on the location and severity of an attack. Attacks can last for days, weeks, or months. After an attack, there is a remission period, where symptoms are less severe or go away entirely. 

Some of the most common MS symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness or weakness in your limbs, usually on one side of your body
  • Pain or tingling in different parts of your body
  • Vision problems

Fast Facts: fatigue for people with MS is usually worse in the afternoon.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is one of the most common skin diseases in the U.S., affecting more than 30% of adults. An overactive immune response causes skin cells to grow much faster than normal skin cells. Most people with psoriasis will notice symptoms between ages 15 and 25, and it can affect people of any race.

Fast Facts: While normal skin cells will grow and shed over approximately a month, skin cells in people with psoriasis will grow in three to four days.

The inflammation of psoriasis can also lead to other health conditions. One in three adults with psoriasis also develops psoriatic arthritis, which causes pain and swelling in the joints.

Quick Statistics: the most common type of psoriasis is plaque psoriasis, which makes up for 80-90% of cases in the U.S.

Psoriasis: Signs & symptoms 

  • Skin rashes with scaling
  • Dry, cracked skin
  • Itching, burning, or soreness of the skin
  • Rashes that flare up and subside

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common type of autoimmune arthritis. It affects small joints in the hands and feet. Rheumatoid arthritis is most common in women, making up 75% of patients with the autoimmune disease. It most often starts between ages 30 to 50, but it can start at any age.

Quick Tips: Working with a rheumatologist is one of the most effective ways to manage rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis: Signs & symptoms

  • Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling, usually in the hands and/or feet
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low-grade fevers

Fast Facts: Joint stiffness is usually worst in the mornings for people with rheumatoid arthritis. The stiffness may go away with movement, but it can also last the rest of the day.

Thyroid disorders

The thyroid is an endocrine gland that makes hormones related to your metabolism. Your metabolism helps your body convert food into energy. When the thyroid isn’t working properly, it can affect multiple aspects of your health. Some common thyroid disorders include:

  • Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder where the immune system attacks the thyroid.
  • Hyperthyroidism, in which the thyroid produces too much thyroid hormone.
  • Hypothyroidism, in which the thyroid doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone.

Fast Facts: Hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism can be the results of other conditions, including other autoimmune disorders. For example, people with diabetes mellitus, especially type 1, are more likely to develop thyroid disorders.

Thyroid disorders: Signs & symptoms

  • Anxiety or irritability
  • Forgetfulness
  • Hair loss
  • Heat intolerance or cold intolerance
  • Menstrual problems: periods being light or stopping, or frequent and heavy
  • Weight problems: either weight loss or weight gain
  • Vision problems

I think I may have an autoimmune disorder. What should I do?

If you think you may have an autoimmune disorder, discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider. Depending on your concerns and symptoms, they may refer you to a specialist such as a rheumatologist or a dermatologist. Together, you and your providers can discuss diagnoses and possible treatment options. 

Can autoimmune disorders be cured?

Currently, there are no cures for autoimmune disorders. They will most likely require lifelong management. This may include taking regular medication doses, making lifestyle changes, or a combination of both. By working with your providers, you can manage your condition and improve your quality of life.

Sources

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