Autoimmune Disease 101

People may know about autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, however there are many other types with which people may not be familiar. Autoimmune diseases are a family of more than 80 chronic, often debilitating and, in some cases, life-threatening illnesses. According to the National Institutes of Health, up to 23.5 million Americans (more than seven percent of the population) suffer from an autoimmune disease—and the prevalence is rising.1

Autoimmune diseases can lead the body to produce antibodies that instead of fighting infections, will attack the body’s cells, tissues and organs. Autoimmune diseases may occur almost anywhere in the body, and some may affect more than one part of the body.

Many of these diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematosus, disproportionately occur in women. Three-quarters of people suffering from an autoimmune disease are women, and some autoimmune diseases are more common in women of Hispanic, African American and Native American descent.2 Such diseases are among the most common causes of death of all women under 65 years of age.3

It is estimated that nearly one-third of the risk of developing an autoimmune disease is hereditary, and the same disease may run in a family. Other risk factors include environmental triggers, such as viruses, bacteria, and perhaps nutritional factors. Research in the last decade has suggested that B-cells (a type of white blood cell) may have a strong influence on the development and progression of certain autoimmune diseases.4

With so many different types of autoimmune diseases, there are many less common autoimmune diseases with which people are likely not familiar, such as systemic sclerosis, which causes skin thickening and hardening, or vasculitis, a condition in which blood vessels become inflamed. Even within vasculitis, there are multiple forms of disease, including granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), microscopic polyangiitis (MPA) and giant cell arteritis (GCA).

For many people living with an autoimmune disease, it can take several years and visits to multiple doctors before a diagnosis is made. Early symptoms may include fatigue, joint and muscle pain, fever, or weight change. Other symptoms depend upon which part of the body is impacted. As these symptoms are nonspecific, many patients are misdiagnosed. Moreover, many of the symptoms do not appear until the disease is at an advanced stage.5

To determine if a patient has an autoimmune disease, a physician will review a patient’s health history, learn of any family history of autoimmune diseases, and conduct blood tests to see if there are specific antibodies present that react against the body’s tissues and organs. Depending on the autoimmune disease, a patient may see specialists in rheumatology, endocrinology, hematology, neurology, cardiology, gastroenterology or dermatology.5

Early diagnosis and treatment may stop more severe damage to organs and tissues, and may help a patient go into remission. If you or your doctor suspect you may be suffering from an autoimmune disease, it is important to see a specialist.


1. NIH Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee: Autoimmune Diseases Research Plan, March 2005. (Last accessed October 10, 2017)

2. Fairweather D, Frisancho-Kiss S, Rose NR. Sex Differences in Autoimmune Disease from a Pathological Perspective. The American Journal of Pathology. 2008;173(3):600-609. doi:10.2353/ajpath.2008.071008.

3. Walsh SJ, Rau LM. Autoimmune diseases: a leading cause of death among young and middle-aged women in the United States. Am J Public Health. 2000;90(9):1463–1466 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

4. “B cells move to centre stage: novel opportunities for autoimmune disease treatment” by Jeffrey L. Browning. Nature Reviews Drug Discovery5, 564-576 (July 2006) | doi:10.1038/nrd2085

5. American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association. (Last accessed October 10, 2017)