A healthy immune system defends the body against disease and infection. But if the immune system malfunctions, it mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Called autoimmune disease, these attacks can affect any part of the body, weakening bodily function and even turning life-threatening.
Some are well known, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, while others are rare and difficult to diagnose. With unusual autoimmune diseases, patients may suffer years before getting a proper diagnosis. Most of these diseases have no cure. Some require lifelong treatment to ease symptoms.
These diseases can affect anyone. Yet certain people are at greater risk, including:
- Women of childbearing age — More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during their childbearing years.
- People with a family history — Some of these diseases run in families, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. It is also common for different types of autoimmune diseases to affect different members of a single family. Inheriting certain genes can make it more likely to get one of these diseases. But a combination of genes and other factors may trigger the disease to start.
- People who are around certain things in the environment — Certain events or environmental exposures may cause some autoimmune diseases, or make them worse. Sunlight, chemicals called solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
- People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds — Some autoimmune diseases are more common or affect certain groups of people more severely. For instance, type 1 diabetes is more common in white people. Lupus is most severe for African-American and Hispanic people.
If you are living with an autoimmune disease, there are things you can do each day to feel better, hopefully this section can provide some solutions.