Autoimmune Diseases

What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

  • Autoimmune diseases are a family of more than 80 chronic, and often disabling, illnesses that develop when defects in the immune system lead the body to attack its own cells, tissues, and organs.1
  • Some common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and Type 1 diabetes.1

What Causes Autoimmune Diseases?

  • The cause of autoimmune disease remains unknown. However, fundamentally all autoimmune diseases are a consequence of impaired immune function that results from a mix of genetic and environmental factors.1
    • Approximately one-third of the risk of developing an autoimmune disease can be attributed to heredity.1
    • Other non-inherited risk factors may include environmental triggers, such as exposure to infectious agents (e.g., virus, bacteria), and lifestyle considerations, such as nutritional factors that may affect immune function.1
  • In the past decade, clinical and laboratory research has suggested that certain immune cells called B-cells may have a stronger influence on the development and progression of various autoimmune diseases than previously thought.2

What Is the Prevalence of Autoimmune Diseases?

  • For reasons poorly understood, the incidence and prevalence of autoimmune diseases is rising.1
    • Collectively, autoimmune diseases are among the most prevalent diseases in the U.S., affecting between 14.7 and 23.5 million people — up to 8 percent of the population. 1
    • Research suggests that autoimmune diseases may run in families.1
  • Most of these diseases disproportionately afflict women, and are among the leading causes of death for young and middle-aged women.1
    • Estimates suggest that 75 percent of autoimmune diseases occur in women, most frequently during the childbearing years.3

How Are Autoimmune Diseases Diagnosed?

  • Diagnosing autoimmune diseases can be particularly difficult, because these disorders can affect any organ or tissue in the body and produce a wide variety of signs and symptoms. 1
    • Many early symptoms of these disorders — such as fatigue, joint and muscle pain, fever or weight change — are nonspecific.1
    • Symptoms are often not apparent until the disease has reached a relatively advanced stage.1
  • Diagnosis typically involves many steps, including the following:
    • Reviewing health history.
    • Determining family history of autoimmune diseases.
    • Conducting blood tests for the presence of specific autoantibodies — antibodies that react against the body's own cells and tissues — which can be a strong indicator of an autoimmune disorder.2