The immune system exists to protect us from pathogens of the outside world like viruses and bacteria. As a rule, our immune system recognizes different Antigens (mostly proteins) which appear in pathogens. Thus it activates different cells to protect us from these pathogens. In this case, we have an increase of white blood cells, and the increase of antibodies, which our white blood cells produce. All this to protect us from any harm.
What happens in auto-immune diseases is that by mistake our immune system recognizes as antigens proteins of our own body, the so-called “self” antigens. So as a result, it gets activated and fights against proteins that are essential for our normal functions. These could be proteins essential for healthy skin, or proteins essential for healthy joints, or proteins of our brain. From the name itself Auto=self and immune system, our immune system attacks itself.
All this by mistake. Normally the immune system is trained to not recognize our proteins as enemies. It has a specific way of destroying any cell which recognizes our proteins as the enemy.
Sometimes this process defaults and as a result, we have an auto-immune disease. So our own defense system turns against us and attacks healthy tissue. The main way the immune system attacks itself is by inflammation, a process normally used to heal.
Which tissue of our body is mostly affected?
Because our immune system is not working properly it can recognize as foreign any protein in our body. That means that every tissue in our body can be affected. We have more than 80 auto-immune diseases.
- Type I diabetes. Our immune system destroys cells that produce insulin
- Psoriasis is a very common dermatological disease.
- Rheumatoid arthritis is a wide known disease of the joints.
- Multiple sclerosis a disease of the central nervous system.
- Inflammatory bowel disease concerns the gastrointestinal tract
- Hashimoto and Graves’s Diseases are auto-immune diseases of the thyroid.
This is a very short list of some common autoimmune diseases. From this, we understand that every tissue is susceptible to an auto-immune disease.
The exact cause of autoimmune disorders are not known. Moreover, we cannot assume only one factor is responsible. It is the combination and the presence of different risk factors that lead to an auto-immune reaction and disease. The risk factors seem to include:
Genetics – a predisposition to autoimmune disorders seems to involve members of the same family. However, one auto-immune disease does not necessarily affect every member of the family. In addition, different members of the same family can be affected by a variant of auto-immune diseases. For example, one person may have Psoriasis, while another has Diabetes. Genetics alone is not enough to trigger an autoimmune reaction, other factors must exist.
Gender – epidemiology shows that 3/4 of people with an autoimmune disease are women. We actually observe that some disorders tend to be affected by big hormonal changes like pregnancy, childbirth, or menopause Infection – it is said that an infection has the capacity to trigger or exacerbate autoimmune disease.
How can I understand if I have an auto-immune disease?
Autoimmune diseases can be tricky to diagnose. A few are very frequent to the population and have a set of distinct initial symptoms, others may persist for years before they get diagnosed. As a population, we must understand that symptoms are the way our body is telling us something is wrong. That being said, one symptom can be part of a variety of different disorders. At this moment, the doctor is the investigator and the person responsible to put the pieces together.
In order to help your doctor be accurate and establish together a good therapeutic plan, which better fits your needs, it is suggested to:
Write a complete and extended family health history and every symptom or feeling you have been having no matter how insignificant might appear to be. Share this information with your doctor.
Search for a specialist with experience in the problems you have been facing. If you are not sure who that might be, visit your GP and he/she will guide you to the right path.
How do I treat auto-immune disease?
Autoimmune diseases tend to be chronic disorders and generally you cannot cure one. What doctors do, is to keep the symptoms in control and enhance the quality of life.
Depending on the disease and the gravity the treatment of course differs. Although treatments vary the basic process that is present in an autoimmune disease is Inflammation and that is the primary process that we, as doctors, try to take care. What is widely used and in every autoimmune disease is the protocol Anti-inflammatory – Corticosteroid medicines. The anti-inflammatory medicines to keep in control the inflammation and Corticosteroids to treat acute-spontaneous bursts of the disease.
Furthermore, taking into consideration the type of the auto-immune disease, the tissue affected and the individual symptoms we can add:
Analgesic (pain-killers) medications such as paracetamol.
Immunosuppressant medicines, lower the activity of the immune system which attacks itself.
Physiotherapy (physical therapy), allows higher and easier mobility.
Surgery, in advanced cases.
What is the quality of life of a person affected by an autoimmune disease?
These are chronic diseases that have a constant change of state. Sometimes they come and go, sometimes they are persistently present, sometimes they only burst once in every few months or years.
Let’s take into consideration some of the widely known. Rheumatoid arthritis, causes joint pain, stiffness of movement, etc. Psoriasis causes constant itchiness, can cover the whole body with red plates, and is unappealing to the eye. Bowel’s Disease gives you constant gastrointestinal pain and discomfort.
Only thinking about these few symptoms being constantly present in your body, how do you feel? They are uncomfortable, they limit your movement, they limit your social interaction.
Autoimmune diseases can impair the life of a person physically and mentally. Living with them makes simple everyday tasks difficult. Talking about them and the impairment they cause is still taboo and unaccepted generally. Healthy individuals struggle to understand this kind of life and the limits it imposes.
As a conclusion, we understand that the life of these patients is somehow limited and challenging.