What is Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune disease is a condition wherein the immune system erroneously attacks the healthy cells and other healthy components of the body. There are numerous types which affect either limited parts of the body while some of the effects are systemic in nature.
The immune system’s normal response is to ward off pathogens (virus, bacteria and foreign bodies) from causing massive infections by releasing antibodies. In this condition, some body parts such as the skin or the joints are being recognized by the immune system as foreign bodies. This leads to a destructive response to the host.
Who are at Risk?
- Gender. Women are at a higher risk of acquiring autoimmune disease with 75 percent probability. With a ratio of 2: 1 versus males. 6.4 percent of women suffer from one of the conditions while only 2.7 percent among men acquire. Though the reason is unknown as to why it is more common among women, female hormones and the relatively tough immune system females have are the possible culprits.
- Age. Young to middle age group. Rheumatoid arthritis is one type that affects middle-age groups. Ethnicity: African American, American Indian, or Latino. These ethnicities may have fatty, sugary, and processed foods as part of their diet that may cause inflammation which may trigger an immune response. Though studies are yet to prove such claim.
- Family history. This condition can also be inherited when a particular type occurred among the family members. There is a high tendency that it could happen to the next family generations.
- Environmental Factors. Exposure to environmental agents can put a human body at risk of developing autoimmune disorders such as medicines and certain metals. Further studies are ongoing to prove the claims.
- Exposure from previous infections. There are known evidence that previous infections are contributing factors in acquiring autoimmune disorders and yet the mechanism is still unknown.
What are the Most Common Autoimmune Disorders?
1. Type 1 Diabetes
Normally, the pancreas produces a hormone called Insulin to balance the sugar levels in the body. In this case, the autoimmune mistakenly kills the cells that produce Insulin resulting to high blood sugar levels in the circulation which may lead to damage in the blood vessels and vital organs such as the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
2. Rheumatoid Arthritis
It is characterized by a prolonged inflammation in the joints with symptoms such as swelling, localized fever, pain and rigidity. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the healthy cells surrounding the joints.
This condition is known to present red, scaly patches. It happens when the skin cells multiply faster than the normal rate causing them to accumulate on the surface of the skin in the form of skin plaques. In normal body mechanism, matured skin cells are shed off and new skin cells are produced. This normal body mechanism is being compromised by the immune system of the body.
4. Multiple Sclerosis
This is referred to as demyelinating disease because of the destruction of the myelin sheath located on the linings of the nerve cells which help in the flow of communication between the brain and the body. The disease comes in a variety of forms and the rate of progression is different.
Signs and symptoms include physical, mental, and sometimes psychiatric problems characterized by double vision, blindness in one eye, muscle weakness, trouble with sensation, or trouble with coordination.
5. Systemic Lupus Erythematosus
People who develop Lupus Erythematosus often present skin rash. This is why during its discovery, doctors treated it as a dermatological condition until it was proven to be a disease that is characterized by the hyperactivity of the immune system and it affects other organs such as joints, kidneys, brain and heart. Some symptoms include joint pain, fatigue, and rashes.
6. Inflammatory Bowel Disease
These are gastrointestinal abnormalities which are associated with the inflammation in the linings of the digestive system. There are two types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease which are classified according to the affected gastrointestinal tract.
Crohn’s Disease is an inflammation found in the linings of the mouth to the anus while Ulcerative Colitis is characterized by those inflammation found in the linings of the large intestines (colon) and rectum.
7. Addison’s Disease
It is a disease that presents abnormality in the Adrenal Glands. Addison’s disease is also called primary adrenal insufficiency or hypocortisolism in which the Adrenal Glands fail to produce sufficient amounts of cortisol and aldosterone.
These hormones are responsible for regulating the carbohydrates and sugar stored and used by the body. Weakness, fatigue, weight loss, and low blood sugar are the most common signs and symptoms.
8. Grave’s Disease
Also known as toxic diffuse goitre, this disease affects the thyroid gland located in the neck which is the case that often leads to Hyperthyroidism. Patients who have Grave’s Disease can present enlarged Thyroid Gland. The attack of the immune system to damage the thyroid gland causes it to produce more hormones than the normal range.
These hormones regulate metabolism and energy usage in the body. Exophthalmos (bulging of the eyes) is one of its characteristic symptoms. Other signs and symptoms include irritability, muscle weakness, sleeping problems, fast heartbeat, poor heat tolerance, diarrhoea, and unintentional weight loss.
9. Sjogren’s Syndrome
This condition is often accompanying disease to any autoimmune disorder already present in the body such as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis wherein joints and mucous membranes (moisture-secreting glands) are under attacked by the immune system which results in decreased tears and saliva. Proper lubrication is not functional and that dry eyes, dry mount and joint pain are the most common symptoms.
10. Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
Also termed as Chronic Lymphocytic Thyroiditis or Hashimoto’s Disease characterized by gradual destruction of the Thyroid Gland until thyroid hormones production slows down producing symptoms like weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss, and swelling of the thyroid (goitre).
11. Myasthenia Gravis
It is a neuromuscular disease which involves skeletal muscle weakness. The nerves that send signals to the brain in muscular and skeletal functions are being attacked by the immune system. Most commonly affected muscles are used by the eyes, face and swallowing. It can result in double vision, drooping eyelids, trouble talking, and trouble walking.
How to Diagnose Autoimmune Disorders?
The antinuclear antibody test (ANA) is the first test that will be prescribed by the doctor for a patient who is suspected of an autoimmune disorder. A positive result means that the patient may have one present autoimmune disorder but it does not define what particular type is affecting the body though it is commonly used to diagnose Systemic Lupus Erythematosus.
This means that there is no single test capable of diagnosing a certain type of autoimmune disease. Usually, a medical practitioner uses different methods to support the diagnosis. For some types, there are tests that examine the presence of specific antibodies relative to it.
Is There a Treatment for Autoimmune Disease?
As of writing, there is no known treatment for autoimmune disorders. There is no medicine or procedure that will stop the immune system from attacking the healthy cells, tissues and organs, however, management is done through the control of the overreaction of the immune system and reduce the underlying inflammation.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen are used to suppress the inflammatory response. Immune-suppressing drugs are also used to weaken the response of the immune system. Accompanying symptoms are treated accordingly to relieve them. Patients are also advised to have proper diet and exercise.
Is it Possible to Prevent an Autoimmune Disease to Affect The Body?
According to a study done at Karolinska Institute which was published on www.sciencedaily.com on 1 November 2016 and was also published in the academic Journal Nature Immunology, a team of researchers concluded the mechanism of how autoimmune disease is prevented.
The study reiterates that a human’s adaptive immune system is characterized by the white blood cells called B-Lymphocytes which are responsible for creating the symptoms found in an autoimmune disease. The team was trying to discover what leads to the excessive production of this component.
Their study on laboratory mice revealed that a cell in the inherited immune system called Neutrophil which is responsible for wound healing and the initial immune response has another important role in how the immune system works.
When the presence of inflammation is detected in the body, neutrophils signal B-Lymphocytes to produce antibodies that will combat the infection. Furthermore, the neutrophils also interact with a cell known as NKT cell which regulates the immune response to prevent an over-reaction.
This NKT cell is relatively low in patients with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus compared to people who do not present any symptoms of autoimmune disease. This study is a promising discovery that contributes to the understanding of the science behind immune system mechanisms.
Also, this mechanism could be used to regulate the B-Lymphocytes which will open an opportunity to prevent and stop Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) from affecting the human body. Not only it is vital for patients with SLE, it can also be a discovery that will lead to the prevention and treatment of other autoimmune disorders.
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