What Is an Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune diseases are something that can cause inflammation and as a result pain. They are relatively common, but there are many different types of autoimmune diseases. There are treatments for many, which might range from prescription steroids to the use of experimental treatments. Some people even rely on options like medical cannabis to help manage symptoms of autoimmune diseases

While treatment options are available, there aren’t necessarily cures for these disorders. 

We’ve been hearing a lot about autoimmune diseases recently, in particular, because of the Covid-19 outbreak. Some of the reasons the topic has made headlines during the pandemic are because first, some of the experimental treatments being used to help patients are also used for autoimmune diseases and second because pre-existing conditions seem to impact the course of Covid-19 for patients. 

So what exactly are autoimmune diseases?

Understanding An Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disease is a condition where your immune system accidentally attacks your body. 

Typically our immune systems play an essential role in protecting us from viruses, bacteria, and germs. If our body senses an invader is affecting our body, it sends certain killer cells to attack the invaders. 

In most of our immune systems, the cells can differentiate between a foreign invader and your body’s own cells. 

However, if you have an autoimmune disease, it means your immune system is attacking part of your body. 

There are autoimmune diseases that might attack just one organ, and there are also systemic diseases that attack your entire body. 

Why Do Autoimmune Diseases Occur?

Doctors aren’t really clear on what causes some people’s immune systems to function improperly, but we do know some populations are more susceptible to these diseases than others.

For example, a 2014 study showed women are significantly more likely than men to get autoimmune diseases. Some ethnic groups show higher numbers as well. Lupus is one example. Lupus affects more Hispanic and African-American people than Caucasians. 

There may also be a genetic component. 

Some doctors also see links between following a westernized diet and the development of autoimmune disease. For example, it’s possible that eating a diet high in processed foods and sugar can cause inflammation which can in turn trigger an overactive immune response. 

What Are the Most Common Autoimmune Diseases?

Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include:

  • Type 1 diabetes—this autoimmune disease attacks the cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. The pancreas helps regulate blood sugar, and if you have high blood sugar it can cause serious complications like damaged blood vessels. 
  • Rheumatoid arthritis—this disease causes the immune system to attack the joints, and it’s different from osteoarthritis, which is primarily related to aging. People with rheumatoid arthritis can get it at a young age. 
  • Psoriasis—when your skin cells multiply to fast it’s an autoimmune disease called psoriasis. Along with scales of plaque on the skin, this autoimmune disease can also cause pain, stiffness, and swelling in the joints which is known as psoriatic arthritis. 
  • Multiple sclerosis—Also referred to as MS, this autoimmune disease affects how the messages are sent between your spinal cord and brain to the rest of your body. Symptoms of MS can include balance issues, numbness, and problems walking. 
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus—Also called just lupus, this autoimmune disease can cause a rash and it affects many parts of the body including different organs, the brain, heart, and kidneys. 
  • Inflammatory bowel disease—With IBD, which includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, there is inflammation in the walls of the intestines. 

How Do Doctors Test for Autoimmune Diseases?

There’s not one specific test that can diagnose autoimmune disease. There are different ways you might receive a diagnosis, depending on symptoms and other factors. 

One possible test that might be used is called an antinuclear antibody test or ANA, but even if this test is positive, it might not show what disease you specifically have. 

What About Autoimmune Disease and Covid-19?

Finally, a lot of people question whether they are more susceptible to serious complications of Covid-19 if they have an autoimmune disease. Right now, the primary underlying conditions that seem to be linked to worse outcomes include weakened immune systems and chronic illnesses such as cancer, high blood pressure, lung disease, and heart disease. 

Doctors aren’t entirely sure about the risk of autoimmune diseases right now, but one reason people with autoimmune diseases might want to be cautious is that they could be on an immunosuppressant medication.