Introduction to Autoimmune Diseases
The term ‘autoimmune disease’ covers a vast array of medical conditions, affecting every single part of the human body. They are a result of an abnormal reaction of the body’s immune system.
What are Autoimmune Diseases?
The term ‘autoimmune disease’ covers a vast array of medical conditions, affecting every single part of the human body. They are a result of an abnormal reaction of the body’s immune system, whereby it attacks host tissue, recognising it as ‘foreign’. It can either be specific to certain organs, as in Hashimoto’s disease (autoimmune disease attacking the thyroid causing inflammation and failure) or it can be widespread affecting many tissues, as in systemic lupus erythematosus (autoimmune disease that can affect many organs including the skin, joints and kidney). The most common sites are the joints, muscles and skin.
What causes Autoimmune Diseases?
One theory proposed regarding the cause of autoimmune diseases is molecular mimicry. It has been suggested that a foreign antigen which closely resembles a self-antigen can induce a T/B-cell mediated immune response (cells part of the immune response). Host cells are the caught up in a cross-reactivity between immune cells and the foreign antigen and so an autoimmune disease state arises. A number of triggers have also been proposed, which include bacteria/viruses, drugs and environmental irritants. Autoimmune diseases have also been shown to have increased prevalence within families, indicating a genetic component for the cause.
What are the symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases?
Due to the wide breadth of organs autoimmune conditions can affect, symptoms vary greatly from disease to disease. The main, recurrent features however are fatigue, fever and general malaise. A hallmark of autoimmune conditions is that they have flare-ups, where symptoms are considerably worse, and periods of remission or low-level activity.
How are Autoimmune Diseases treated?
A number of tests can aid in diagnosing autoimmune conditions. Many of the conditions have specific autoantibodies that can be detected in the serum or other mediums. A raised white cell count will show if the immune system is actively fighting, a concurrent feature with autoimmune diseases. Added to this is the CRP level, a measure of the level of inflammation within the body (as a result of possible autoimmune disease).
The mainstay of treatment for autoimmune conditions is immunosuppression to try to regulate and down-grade the immune system’s activity, whilst maintaining the body’s ability to fight off infections. Symptom control is achieved through the use of anti-inflammatories, which prevent damage to tissue (a result of chronic immune-related activity). Key medications include methotrexate and steroids, which although effective, must be carefully monitored due to their associated side-effects.