Autoimmune Diseases

An autoimmune disease is a disease caused by the body’s own immune system. Depending on the disease, autoimmune diseases can attack any tissue and any organ. Therefore, very different symptoms are possible. Because an autoimmune disease cannot be treated causally, it usually accompanies the patient for a lifetime. In most cases, however, certain medications can alleviate the symptoms.

How common are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases affect many people and are among the most common chronic diseases in Germany. For several decades, doctors have been registering an increasing number of patients, which is mainly due to the fact that the examination methods and thus the diagnostic possibilities for autoimmune diseases are becoming better and better.

Common autoimmune diseases

Crohn’s disease

Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammation of the intestine that usually occurs in phases. Typical symptoms are abdominal pain and severe diarrhoea. Crohn’s disease cannot yet be cured. However, the complaints can be influenced favourably by medication and a corresponding lifestyle.

multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS, Encephalomyelitis disseminata) is a chronic inflammation of the nervous system. Nerve structures are destroyed, resulting in a wide variety of symptoms. The disease cannot be cured, but its progression can be alleviated with medication.

ulcerative colitis

Ulcerative colitis is a chronic inflammation of the colon. Typical sign is diarrhoea with blood and mucous admixtures. In addition, there is pain, often in the left upper abdomen. Ulcerative colitis is usually relapsing: during the symptom-free period, normal everyday life is possible. During a relapse, on the other hand, a hospital stay may become necessary.

Diabetes Type 1

Type 1 diabetes is the rarer form of diabetes. In Germany about 200,000 people suffer from it. Your pancreas no longer produces enough insulin or no insulin at all. Therefore, those affected have to inject the hormone insulin regularly throughout their lives in order to lower their elevated blood sugar level.

What is an autoimmune disease?

In an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks and destroys the body’s own tissue. Which tissue is attacked depends on the type of immune disease. Normally, the immune system only takes action against exogenous material that can be harmful to the organism, in particular pathogens such as viruses, bacteria or fungi. The body’s own structures recognise and tolerate the defensive forces against it. The distinction between “endogenous”; and “foreign”; is possible because each body cell carries certain molecules on its cell membrane which it identifies as belonging to the body. Foreign structures do not have these molecules (or carry others) and are therefore attacked by the defensive forces.

In an autoimmune disease, this distinction is no longer possible: The immune system mistakenly considers certain endogenous structures to be foreign and tries to destroy the supposed invaders. Depending on the autoimmune disease, different components of the immune system are involved. On the one hand, certain cells (e. g. T lymphocytes), but also special proteins, so-called antibodies. If antibodies behave autoimmune, i. e. attack your own body, they are called autoantibodies.

An autoimmune disease is not to be confused with an allergy. In the case of allergies, the immune system does not behave autoimmune, but rather considers harmless foreign material to be threatening and then reacts exaggeratedly to it.

Which organs are affected by autoimmune diseases?

An autoimmune reaction can be directed against various structures of the body and thus attack any organ. Systemic autoimmune diseases sometimes affect not only a single organ, but several at the same time.

autoimmune thyroid disease

If the misdirected immune system is directed against the thyroid gland, this leads to inflammation (thyroiditis) and – depending on the type of autoimmune disease – to over- or under-functioning of the thyroid gland. The two most common autoimmune thyroid diseases are Graves’; disease and Hashimoto’s thyroidits.

autoimmune skin disease

The skin is particularly frequently affected by autoimmunity and is damaged by many autoimmune diseases. Examples are lupus erythematosus, psoriasis, dermatomyositis, lichen sclerosus or sarcoidosis.

autoimmune disease of the liver

The liver can also be a target of one’s own immune system. In autoimmune hepatitis, defence cells and autoantibodies attack the liver cells, causing inflammation of the liver.

Autoimmune disease of the kidney and adrenal gland

Some forms of kidney inflammation are autoimmune and the adrenal gland can also be affected by an autoimmune reaction. Addison’s disease, for example, a form of adrenal hypofunction, is often triggered by the body’s own defences.

autoimmune bowel disease

Chronic complaints of the digestive tract are often caused by autoimmune diseases. Examples are Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease.

autoimmune disease of the eye

Also the eyes are not excluded from damages by autoimmune processes. For example, in connection with some autoimmune diseases, the vascular skin of the eye can become inflamed (uveitis). In Sjögren’s syndrome, the eye dries out, which often leads to horny and conjunctivitis in those affected.

Other autoimmune diseases

In addition to these examples, an autoimmune disease can occur in various other structures and organs of the body, such as the nerves, vessels, lungs, pancreas or heart.

Autoimmune Disease: Symptoms

The complaints of patients with an autoimmune disease are primarily dependent on which organs the immune system attacks. Examples of possible symptoms are:

abdominal pain blood in a chair blood in urine
chronic pain diarrhoea fever
joint pain skin rash itchy
dry mouth muscle aches kidney pain
flake dry eyes  

 

Autoimmune Disease: Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes for the development of an autoimmune disease are not yet known. However, physicians are certain that both genetic influences and environmental conditions are important. For example, autoimmune diseases occur more frequently in families, and there are also differences in frequency between certain ethnic groups and cultures.

Environmental factors that influence the development and severity of autoimmune diseases include infections, stress, pregnancy and certain medications.

Autoimmune Disease: Diagnosis

There are many different methods for the diagnosis and follow-up of an autoimmune disease.

arthroscopy     biopsy blood test
colonoscopy stool test   joint puncture hemoccult test

 

Autoimmune Disease: Treatment

Many physicians and patients want to be able to cure autoimmune diseases. As long as one does not know the actual triggers, however, no causal therapy is possible. The treatment methods available today therefore only alleviate complaints. These include, among other things:

apheresis immunosuppression laser therapy
light therapy Photodynamic Therapy  

 

Various factors also play a role in the therapy, which can have an influence on an autoimmune disease. Nutrition, climate, stress levels and other aspects should therefore be included in the treatment concepts.

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