Facts & Resources

Understanding Autoimmune Diseases

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An autoimmune disease develops when the body's immune system fails to recognize normal body tissues and attacks and destroys them as if they were foreign, rather than attacking an outside organism. The cause is not fully understood, but in some cases it is thought that autoimmune diseases are triggered by exposure to microorganisms or other environmental causes, especially in people with a genetic predisposition to the disorder. A single organ or multiple organs and tissues may be affected.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases

There are many autoimmune diseases with symptoms that range from mild rashes to life-threatening conditions that attack major organ systems. Though each disease is different, immune-system malfunction is present in all of them. Disease symptoms vary depending on which tissue is targeted for destruction. Symptoms common to all autoimmune disorders include fatigue, dizziness, malaise, and low-grade fever.

Autoimmune disorders are frequently classified into organ-specific disorders and non-organ-specific types. Organs and tissues frequently affected include the endocrine gland, such as thyroid, pancreas, and adrenal glands; components of the blood, such as red blood cells; and the connective tissues, skin, muscles, and joints.

In organ-specific disorders, the autoimmune process is directed mostly against one organ.  But patients may experience several organ-specific diseases at the same time. In non-organ-specific disorders, autoimmune activity is widely spread throughout the body. This includes Rreumatoid arthritis (joints), systemic lupus erythematosus, and dermatomyositis (connective tissue).

According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, about 75 percent of autoimmune disease cases occur in women, particularly those who have had children. The cause is not fully understood, but in some cases it is thought to be triggered by exposure to microorganisms especially in people with a genetic predisposition to the disorder.

Types of Treatment for Autoimmune Diseases

Treatment for autoimmune diseases may include drugs that suppress the immune system as well as therapies that target specific organs affected. There are no known cures for autoimmune diseases. In some cases, however, stem cell transplants are used to prevent the progression of the disease and to lessen symptoms.

Common Types of Autoimmune Diseases

Localized Autoimmune Disorders

  • Addison's disease (adrenal)
  • Autoimmune hepatitis (liver)
  • Celiac disease (GI tract)
  • Crohn's disease (GI tract)
  • Graves' disease (overactive thyroid)
  • Guillain-Barre syndrome (central nervous system)
  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis (lowered thyroid function)
  • Multiple sclerosis (central nervous system)
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon (fingers, toes, nose, ears)
  • Type 1 diabetes mellitus (pancreas islets)
  • Ulcerative colitis (GI tract)

Systemic Autoimmune Diseases

  • Lupus [systemic lupus erythematosus] (skin, joints, kidneys, heart, brain, red blood cells, other)
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica (large muscle groups)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (joints; less commonly lung, skin, and Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis)
  • Scleroderma (skin, intestine, less commonly lung)
  • Sjogren's syndrome (salivary glands, tear glands, joints)
  • Systemic sclerosis
  • Temporal arteritis / giant cell arteritis (arteries of the head and neck)

Fred Hutch has researched and treated autoimmune diseases for decades.