Autoimmune Diseases: Types, Symptoms, Causes and More

A healthy immune system is critical to defending the body against infection and disease. However, sometimes the immune system malfunctions and begins attacking the body itself – a process known as autoimmunity – which can lead to disease. Our bodies are immune systems that protect our cells against germs and other foreign invaders. This article will explore how autoimmune diseases develop and discuss some common forms of the many autoimmune diseases.

The function of the immune system is to protect the body from infection and other foreign invaders. For example, when bacteria or viruses enter the body, white blood cells known as lymphocytes engulf these disease causing elements and destroy them through chemical processes. Autoimmunity occurs when the immune system begins attacking healthy tissue by mistake.

How Autoimmune Diseases Attack

The different types of autoimmune diseases attack most often in one of three ways: 

By mistaking self for foreign – In this case, a person’s T-cells (lymphocytes that help the immune system fight off infection) produce antibodies that bind to healthy cells and tissues because they resemble a foreign invader; it is possible for people with Lupus erythematosus or Rheumatoid arthritis to have this kind of autoimmunity. 

By mistaking nonself for self – Antigens are molecules that cause an immune response when they bind with antibodies, but under certain conditions the body may produce antigens that are similar enough to healthy tissue that it causes their T-cells to attack their own cells. This is believed to be what happens in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Grave’s disease. 

By mistaking self for nonself – The most common cause of autoimmune disorders, this occurs when T-cells mistake normal proteins in the body as being foreign. This results from a process known as molecular mimicry , where a pathogen uses a protein found in human cells to infect them and the T-cells that are trying to fight off the infection end up attacking healthy cells as well. This is believed to be what happens in type 1 diabetes , where a viral infection triggers molecular mimicry and T-cells begin producing antibodies against insulin, responsible for maintaining normal blood glucose levels.


One major autoimmune disorder is systemic lupus erythematosus . It affects many organs of the body including the skin, joints, kidneys, heart and lungs.

The severity of this disease varies from person to person but it usually results in inflammation caused by abnormal immune system chemicals called cytokines produced by B cells (lymphocytes that produce antibodies) or other immune cells.

Other signs include fever , arthritis , kidney problems and anemia . In severe cases, SLE can lead to nervous system problems or blood clotting, potentially leading to life-threatening conditions.

Another autoimmune disorder that affects many organ systems is rheumatoid arthritis . This disease causes inflammation of the joints and sometimes other organs as well.

The immune system’s B cells mistakenly produce antibodies against healthy tissue in the joints. The joints become inflamed which results in pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of movement in one or both joints. Sometimes this autoimmune disorder can cause eye problems such as dryness and itchiness as well as lung diseases such as asthma .

Other autoimmune disorders include: celiac disease , Crohn’s disease , ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel disease), type 1 diabetes and Grave’s Disease (hyperthyroidism).

Autoimmune disorders can be managed in several ways. Steroids such as prednisone and corticosteroids are often prescribed during exacerbations to reduce inflammation and relieve symptoms. Other treatments may include medications that target specific parts of the immune system, such as rituximab, which targets B cells; or belimumab , an antibody that inhibits receptors on white blood cells known as B lymphocytes. 

It is usually necessary for people with autoimmune diseases to follow special diets due to their faulty response to certain proteins found in food. 

For example, gluten sensitivity is one of the leading causes of autoimmune disorders because gluten induces many inflammatory responses.  Autoimmune disease patients should seek medical treatment if they have any unusual symptoms or suspect they may be experiencing an autoimmune disorder.

What Are Autoimmune Disorders? 

Autoimmune disorders are conditions in which the immune system mistakes healthy cells and tissues for harmful foreign material and attacks them. Autoimmune disorders occur when your body’s immune system is unable to distinguish between its own healthy cells and tissues, which it needs to stay alive, and foreign substances like viruses or bacteria, which need to be attacked and destroyed. 

Sometimes your immune system may not be able to tell the difference between foreign substances and your body’s healthy cells and tissues, even if you’re exposed to something as common as germs or pollen. As a result, your immune system will launch an attack on its own healthy cells and tissues, causing autoimmune symptoms like inflammation. This response is known as autoimmunity. 

There are more than 80 autoimmune disorders, and they all have different names depending on which body system is being attacked.

People with autoimmune disorders have abnormally low levels of antibodies, which are proteins produced by the body to help fight infection. For example, if someone has an autoimmune disorder affecting the thyroid gland (which produces hormones that influence growth and metabolism), anti-thyroid antibodies may be present in unusually high levels.

Autoimmune disorders can affect many different organ systems in the body, including blood cells, skin, joints, digestive system, muscles and connective tissues. Autoimmune disorders can also affect many different types of cells within an organ system. For example, Graves’ disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the thyroid gland. In this condition, autoantibodies target both the thyroid hormones that are produced by the cells of the thyroid gland as well as the hormone receptor sites on those same cells.

Many autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose because general lab tests for inflammation and infection don’t always provide enough information to identify autoimmune problems. If your doctor suspects you have an autoimmune disorder, additional testing will likely be required.

Autoimmune Disease Overview

Sjogren’s syndrome is a disorder of the immune system that causes your white blood cells to attack moisture-producing glands resulting in dry eyes and mouth. Other symptoms may include feeling tired, difficulty swallowing, vaginal dryness, joint pain, itchiness and weight loss caused by decreased appetite.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis  is linked to inflammation of the thyroid gland which is responsible for producing important hormones involved in growth and metabolism. Symptoms typically develop slowly over time and include: fatigue: weight gain or loss without trying: dry skin: puffy eyes: muscle aches and joint pain; hoarseness; slowed heart rate and depression.

Vitiligo  is a condition that causes the loss of your skin’s pigment (melanin) which leaves white patches on your skin. It can affect both men and women with any hair color making it an equal opportunity disease. Many people who have vitiligo also have other autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Addison’s disease, pernicious anemia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or psoriasis.

Autoimmune hepatitis  is associated with liver inflammation caused an overactive immune system. Symptoms may include fatigue, jaundice and a general feeling of being unwell.

Type 1 diabetes  is an autoimmune disorder that causes your immune system to attack cells in your pancreas that produce insulin leading to the inability to produce the hormone necessary for processing sugar in your body. Symptoms of type I diabetes often develop quickly after a person is diagnosed with another autoimmune disease such as thyroid disease, celiac disease or psoriasis.

Celiac disease is diagnosed through blood tests along with an intestinal biopsy while the other autoimmune diseases listed above are diagnosed based on symptoms and medical history. Once you have been diagnosed, there’s usually no cure but treatments are available to manage symptoms and reduce flare-ups .

What are autoimmune diseases?

Our body is immune, which is complex and protects the body against infections. In order to understand how we feel, we need to differentiate ourselves from the other person, we must understand how we are able to communicate with others. The body is incapable of recognizing what is different for one’s self from the other.

When these occur, the body releases autoantibodies to attack the normal cells. The regulatory T cells do not perform their job as immune systems maintain a balanced immune response. This leads to an arbitrary attack on our bodies. This causes what is called an autoimmune disorder.  The primary NIH organization for research on Autoimmune Diseases is the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.

Autoimmune Disease Basics

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body is unable to distinguish between its own cells and foreign cells, and cause the immune system to confuse the normal cells and attack them. Approximately 80 kinds of immune disease have been reported that have affected a broad spectrum of body parts. Most women’s health issues experiencing autoimmune diseases, including autoimmune sclerosis or hyperpenia. The autoimmune disorder can vary from one person to another. Symptoms are attributed to various factors including genetics, environmental factors, and personal well-being.

Autoimmune Disease and Your Health

Inflammation of joints and muscles may cause heart disease — particularly when it is associated with diabetes — and heart disease. While the need to take action to reduce cardiovascular disease is always an important consideration, if your health is compromised. Tell your cardiologist about ways you can improve your health. Keeping a healthy cholesterol level within a healthy range, eating healthy food and exercising regularly could save your heart. This will help to decrease symptoms in a patient with autoimmune conditions.

Autoimmune Disease Symptoms

Although there are differing autoimmune diseases, they often share the same symptoms. Some women complain of autoimmune conditions which are often difficult to diagnose. In the past it was uncommon in the medical field for people with autoimmune conditions to get tests done. It may be hard to diagnose because symptoms can arise in many different ways. 

Types of Autoimmune Disease

Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a condition in which the body attacks the membranes that line your joints, causing inflammation and stiffness in your joints. It’s usually accompanied by extra bone growth (called exostoses) at the joints.

This disorder is similar to osteoarthritis, but it occurs when there are inflammatory changes of the tissues around the joints. The immune system mistakenly triggers inflammation in various parts of your body, including your skin, eyes, lungs, heart and nervous system.


When you have psoriasis, red scaly patches form on certain areas of your skin for no apparent reason. This disorder often begins or worsens due to a triggering of your immune system called a “flare.” While flare-ups tend to be unpredictable and can seem random, they can often be triggered by a bacterial or viral infection, a change in season or climate, stress, an injury to the skin and certain medicines.


Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that can affect various parts of your body including your joints, skin, kidneys, heart and lungs. In most cases of lupus (called systemic lupus erythematosus), symptoms come on suddenly with no known trigger. While the exact cause is not known, most researchers believe it is caused when both your immune system and your genetics interact together.

Myasthenia gravis

With this autoimmune disorder, the immune system attacks a specific type of nerve fiber called a “cholinergic receptor,” which normally helps muscles respond to your brain’s direction. As a result, you may have trouble swallowing or breathing under certain circumstances.

Hashimoto’s Disease

This condition occurs when your own immune system attacks your thyroid gland, damaging it and reducing its ability to make hormones that help regulate your energy and metabolism. This inflammation also often triggers antibodies to be made against thyroglobulin, which is a protein within the thyroid gland. These abnormal antibodies can cause additional problems because they attach to the thyroid gland even after treatment with radiation or surgery.

Depending on how much destruction has occurred in the thyroid gland, you may need to take thyroid hormone for life or occasionally require thyroxine medication. Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune form of hypothyroidism where antibodies are produced that actually attack and destroy thyroid cells.

Lymphocytic hypophysitis

This is a fairly rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the pituitary gland, causing it to produce too much of certain hormones. It can lead to low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and low cortisol levels. This autoimmune condition occurs most often in women between ages 20-40.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus

This chronic disease occurs when the body’s immune system (the cells that normally fight harmful viruses and bacteria) attacks and destroys the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas, making it difficult for your body to regulate blood sugar levels. With type 1 diabetes, you must take insulin injections or use an insulin pump in order to stay alive because the body no longer produces this important hormone naturally. Type 2 diabetes is different from type 1 in that although there is a strong hereditary link associated with both diseases, type 2 does not involve directly attacking and destroying beta cells. Rather, it is related more closely to lifestyle factors such as obesity and age and usually develops gradually over many years before reaching full-blown diabetes.

Graves’ disease

In an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease, your immune system attacks and damages your thyroid gland. It’s the most common cause of hyperthyroidism in the U.S., affecting nearly 2 percent of all Americans at some point in their lives. Unlike Hashimoto’s, where a person develops a low functioning thyroid, Graves’ is associated with a hyperactive one that produces too much hormone.


This condition occurs when your immune system attacks your blood vessels. There are many kinds of vasculitis, but its most common symptom is redness, warmth, tenderness and pain in one or more joints that can occur alone or in combination with other symptoms.

Autoimmune hepatitis

With autoimmune hepatitis, the body’s own immune system attacks liver cells for unclear reasons. Symptoms can include fatigue, abdominal pain and jaundice. Most people are diagnosed between ages 20-40. The good news is that this disease often responds well to treatment with medications called immunosuppressants which stop your immune system from attacking healthy tissue.

An increasing number of researchers believe there may be a connection between autoimmune diseases like lupus and autoimmune hepatitis since they share similar risk factors and other clinical features like skin rashes and endocrine problems.

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

This condition occurs when the body’s immune system attacks nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord, resulting in muscle weakness or loss of sensation that can worsen over time. There is no cure for MS, but treatments are available that may help manage symptoms like: fatigue: heat intolerance: bladder problems: tremor: spasticity: pain and stiffness.

Type 1 diabetes, lupus and rheumatoid arthritis closely resemble autoimmune diseases such as MS. Although scientists aren’t sure whether they’re directly related to each other, there is evidence suggesting a strong link between these diseases because many individuals with one autoimmune disorder also have another related one.

Guillain-Barre syndrome 

People with this condition experience muscle weakness (usually in the legs). Usually, there’s also a loss of sensation or even temporary paralysis. About half of people with Guillain-Barre syndrome recover fully while others need to use wheelchairs for extended periods of time and will have some permanent damage in their arms and legs. People usually recover from one episode but it can come back at any time.

Celiac disease

This digestive disorder is characterized by an immune reaction that occurs when your body mistakes gluten-containing foods for harmful invaders. Over time, exposure to gluten damages the small intestine lining leading to various complications like fatigue, malnutrition and intestinal problems if autoimmune diseases diagnosed and treated properly. It’s thought 1 in 141 Americans has celiac disease.

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

IBD causes inflammation in your digestive system and can lead to ulcers, abdominal pain and other uncomfortable symptoms. There are two types of IBD: Crohn’s disease: which affects all areas of the gastrointestinal tract Ulcerative colitis: This type only affects the large bowel (colon) and rectum. Both types usually involve severe diarrhea and weight loss. Some people go into remission but they’re always at risk for a flare-up which can be caused by stress, food or other factors.

Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathiesy (CIDP)

This group of progressive medical disorders causes damage to the myelin sheath that covers many nerves. The symptoms can include: muscle weakness and pain, numbness and tingling in arms and/or legs. Although CIDP is very rare, it’s like other autoimmune nervous disorders because the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Other diseases with similar symptoms are MS and Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Dermatomyositis and polymyositis

These muscle disorders occur when your body’s immune system attacks healthy cells in your muscles causing inflammation. They can cause symptoms like muscle aches and weakness, fatigue, joint pain and skin rashes. These conditions usually begin in middle age or later although they can occur at any time. There’s no cure for either disease but treatments are available that help manage symptoms.

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