Here at AdventHealth, we know that you can’t fix the parts without treating the whole. And we also understand it’s hard to feel whole and experience your best life with an undiagnosed condition.
If you’re struggling with a chronic collection of unexplained symptoms, you might disregard them as life’s stresses wearing you out. Or, you may have told providers who can’t seem to make sense of the way you’re feeling either.
It very well may be that you are one of the 50 million Americans who have an autoimmune disease. With more than 80 autoimmune diseases with mysterious symptoms that can mimic other illnesses, it can take time and effort to reach a diagnosis. But we want you to know that our team is with you all the way as a connected network that will collaborate with you, your primary care provider, and specialists you may need until we find an answer, so you can start a treatment plan that allows you to live your best life with an autoimmune disease.
Read on to learn what autoimmune diseases are, 10 of the most common autoimmune diseases, when to see a doctor and treatment options.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
Usually, your immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells, and it runs smoothly to keep you healthy.
With an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign invaders. It releases proteins called autoantibodies that attack healthy cells. What started out as a good thing, trying to protect your body from real threats like viruses and bacteria, quickly stops working in your favor when your immune system overreacts and attacks itself, causing uncomfortable and even dangerous symptoms that decrease the quality of your life.
Autoimmune diseases notoriously impact women at higher rates than men, but men can get them, too.
Some autoimmune diseases attack one organ only, like Type 1 diabetes, which affects the pancreas. Others, like lupus, can attack the whole body and many different organs. Let’s learn more about the 10 most common autoimmune diseases. If a number of the symptoms sound familiar, be sure to visit your primary care provider for an evaluation.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is often characterized by the malar (butterfly-shaped) rash that can appear on the face during flare-ups. But in its systemic form, there is so much more to lupus than its impact on the skin. Lupus affects many organs, including the joints, kidneys, brain and heart.
Joint pain, fatigue and rashes are among the most common symptoms. Others include shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, confusion, dry eyes, fever and skin lesions that worsen with sun exposure.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease where the immune system attacks your joints. This can cause redness, warmth, soreness and stiffness in the joints. In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels.
The inflammation that comes with rheumatoid arthritis is what can damage other parts of the body as well. While new medications have improved treatment options dramatically, severe rheumatoid arthritis can cause physical disabilities.
Type 1 Diabetes
The pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which helps regulate blood sugar levels. In Type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in your pancreas, causing an imbalance where blood sugar levels are uncontrolled without intervention.
Chronic high blood sugar results can damage the blood vessels and organs, including the heart, kidneys, eyes and nerves.
If you or your child experience symptoms such as being very thirsty and/or hungry, urinating a lot, blurry vision, being very tired or weak, or losing weight without trying, reach out to your doctor asap.
Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological autoimmune disease that damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating surrounding nerve cells in your central nervous system. Damage to the myelin sheath slows the transmission speed of messages between your brain and spinal cord to and from the rest of your body.
This damage can lead to numbness, weakness, balance issues and trouble walking. The disease comes in several forms that progress at different rates.
Myasthenia gravis, another neurological autoimmune disease, affects nerve impulses that help the brain control the muscles. When the communication from nerves to muscles is impaired, signals can’t direct the muscles to contract.
The most common symptom is muscle weakness, which worsens with activity and improves with rest. Muscles that control eye movements, eyelid opening, swallowing and facial movements are often impacted.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) causes inflammation in the lining of the intestinal wall. The two types of IBD affect a different part of the GI tract. They are:
- Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus
- Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum
Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease share symptoms such as diarrhea, rectal bleeding, abdominal pain, fatigue and weight loss.
For some patients, IBD is a mild illness. For others, it's a debilitating condition that can lead to life-threatening complications.
Addison’s disease impacts the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol, aldosterone and androgen hormones. Too little cortisol can affect how the body uses and stores carbohydrates and glucose. Deficiency of aldosterone can lead to sodium loss and excess potassium in the bloodstream.
Symptoms of Addison’s disease include fatigue, weakness, weight loss and low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
Sjögren’s syndrome attacks the glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. Its classic symptoms are dry eyes and dry mouth, but it can also affect the joints or skin and nervous system.
It can occur independently of other health problems, called primary Sjögren's syndrome, or as a result of another connective tissue disorder, called secondary Sjögren's syndrome. Sjögren's syndrome can also be comorbid with other autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or systemic sclerosis.
Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland in the neck, causing it to produce too much of its hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, known as metabolism.
Having too much of these hormones revs up your body’s activities, causing symptoms like nervousness, a fast heartbeat, heat intolerance and unintended weight loss. Another common symptom is bulging eyes.
In contrast to Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis is where not enough of the thyroid hormone is produced (rather than overproduction in Graves’), causing a deficiency. Symptoms include weight gain, sensitivity to cold, fatigue, hair loss and swelling of the thyroid called a goiter.
When to See a Doctor for Autoimmune Diseases
See a doctor if you’re experiencing symptoms of an autoimmune disease. Start with your primary care provider, who may refer you to visit a specialist, depending on the type of symptoms or disease you have.
- Rheumatologists treat joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune diseases like Sjögren’s syndrome and lupus
- Gastroenterologists treat diseases of the GI tract, such as celiac and Crohn’s disease
- Endocrinologists treat conditions of the glands, including Type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Addison’s disease
- Neurologists treat neuromuscular diseases like multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis
- Dermatologists treat skin conditions, such as psoriasis
Your doctor will use tests, review your symptoms and conduct a physical exam to reach a diagnosis. Autoimmune diseases can take time to correctly diagnose.
Doctors often use the antinuclear antibody test (ANA) when symptoms point to an autoimmune disease. A positive test means you may have one of these diseases, but it won’t confirm exactly which one you have or if you have one for sure.
Other tests look for specific autoantibodies produced in specific autoimmune diseases. This will help your doctor narrow down to which you have.
Treatment Options for Autoimmune Diseases
Treatment will depend largely on which autoimmune disease you have and the severity level. If your symptoms are mild, your doctor may encourage you to manage them with lifestyle choices that will make you feel better, like eating a nutritious diet, getting plenty of rest balanced with enough physical activity and fresh air.
Medications like immunosuppressants and NSAIDs can be used to help control the immune system’s overactive responses to reduce inflammation in your body. Treatments are also available to relieve symptoms like pain, swelling, fatigue and skin rashes.
We Treat the Whole You
We understand that when it comes to having an autoimmune disease, you’re dealing not only with distressing physical symptoms, but emotional pain as well. While some people might not understand the complexity of autoimmune diseases and the impact they have on patients and their families, we do. And we’re here to help you feel better from head to toe and the inside out with a treatment plan that honors you.
Reach out to your primary care provider today so you can get connected with the specialty care you need. We want you to feel whole.