Autoimmune diseases

What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are a group of conditions where healthy cells in the body are mistakenly attacked by the immune system.

There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disease. This makes diagnosis difficult. The most common autoimmune diseases are:

Prognosis of the disease

Although autoimmune diseases can’t yet be cured, there are a number of treatments available which can help alleviate the symptoms. Having an autoimmune disease does not affect your life expectancy.

Symptoms of autoimmune disease

The main symptoms are usually inflammation (which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling), fatigue, muscle aches and fever but these symptoms to not apply to all autoimmune diseases (particularly Type 1 diabetes).

Symptoms also depend on the particular condition:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease: abdominal pain and bloody diarrhoea are common.
  • Type I diabetes: blurred vision, the need to urinate often, problems with concentration, and chronic thirst
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: the main symptoms are mild joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue. The joints may be hot and painful. The areas most affected are the wrists, knees, fingers, and ankles.
  • Coeliac disease: manifests as abdominal pain, diarrhoea, constipation, weight loss, and fatigue.
  • Lupus: this may be difficult to diagnose since it manifests as outbreaks. Symptoms depend on each case, but the main symptoms are muscle and joint pain and hair loss. In addition, there is often atypical colouring on the face, especially on the nose and cheeks.

Medical tests for autoimmune diseases

The first step in detecting an autoimmune disease is to have a complete medical history taken, including family history, lifestyle, drugs prescribed, and symptoms. After this, depending on the autoimmune disease detected or suspected, some tests will be performed:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease: may require blood and stool analysis, endoscopy, capsule endoscope, ultrasound and radiological tests.
  • Type I diabetes: a glycosylated haemoglobin (A1c) test, a random blood sugar test or a fasting blood sugar test is usually done for diagnosis.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: a blood test and radiologic examination of the most affected skeletal segments most affected is performed.
  • Coeliac disease: four tests are usually performed to diagnose this pathology: serology, genetic testing, duodenal biopsy and gluten-free diet.
  • Lupus: diagnosis of lupus is often complicated. Diagnosis is based on the presence of several criteria that must occur at the same time, such as malar rash, arthritis, blood or neurological disorders, mouth sores and serositis, among others.

What causes autoimmune diseases?

The causes of autoimmune diseases are unknown, although they tend to be hereditary. In addition, some viruses, bacteria and drugs may cause certain alterations that trigger their appearance.

African-American, Hispanic-American, and Native American women are most at risk.

Can they be prevented?

There is currently no known way to prevent autoimmune diseases.

Treatments for autoimmune diseases

There are different treatments depending on the disease to be treated. For example, the main treatment for type 1 diabetes is the daily administration of insulin. Patients with coeliac disease need to eliminate gluten from their diet. Patients with rheumatoid arthritis can take anti-inflammatory medication and steroid injections to manage pain.

Which specialist treats autoimmune diseases?

The specialist treating an autoimmune disease will depend on the type of disease. Some specialists include: Internal Physicians, Immunologists, Dermatologists and Rheumatologists.

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