Autoimmune Diseases: Frequently Asked Questions

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One might say that autoimmune diseases are cases of mistaken identity. In healthy people, the immune system works the way it should, by keeping out invaders such as viruses and bacteria. The immune system senses when something is foreign and should be gotten rid of. But in people with autoimmune disease, the immune system malfunctions and the body mistakenly attacks its own cells, causing a host of symptoms.

Are autoimmune diseases common?

Yes. More than 23.5 million Americans have an autoimmune condition, of which there are more than 80 different types. Some are relatively common and some are quite rare.

What body parts do autoimmune diseases affect?

Autoimmune diseases affect many different body parts, from major organs to tiny glands. Different autoimmune conditions affect different areas.

Are autoimmune diseases more common in certain people?

Women are much more likely than men to have autoimmune diseases. These often start when they reach childbearing age. But men and children get autoimmune diseases, too. Those with family histories are more likely to get certain autoimmune diseases. Doctors believe that a combination of the right genes and the right environmental triggers are responsible for many autoimmune conditions. Also, certain ethnic groups are more susceptible to certain conditions. For instance, white people are more likely than others to get type 1 diabetes, while African Americans and Latinos are more likely to be affected by lupus.

How do I get treated for an autoimmune condition?

Because the symptoms of a single autoimmune condition can be extremely varied, patients often have to see several specialists in order to receive proper treatment. For instance, a person with rheumatoid arthritis would see a rheumatologist to treat the underlying inflammation causing the disease, but also might need to see an ophthalmologist several times a year due to the disease's risk of eye complications. Some rheumatoid arthritis patients experience rashes, so a good dermatologist might be a necessary part of the treatment team as well.

Are autoimmune diseases curable?

Generally, no. But they are treatable using a combination of medication, including pain relievers and immunosuppressants, and physical therapy. Many people with autoimmune diseases have a trusted self-care routine that helps minimize symptoms when the disease is active, or "flaring." In many cases, people with autoimmune diseases will experience quiet periods when the disease does not appear to be active. In a lucky percentage, these periods of remission can last for years.

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The National Women's Health Information Center