Autoimmune Disease: What Are They And Do I Have One?

Medically Reviewed by Jacque Parker, RN

The body's immune system is a marvelous thing. It can spot a flu virus cell in moments, wards off the bacteria that we encounter every day, and keeps us from becoming as ill as those alien invaders in "War of the Worlds" --Remember that old movie? The aliens had never been exposed to cold germs, so had no immunity to them and were destroyed by the common cold. Ask THEM if a working immune system is important!

In a healthy individual, the immune sytem of the body works like this: When foreign substances like bacteria enter the body (For example, say, through a paper cut on your finger), the body immediately recognized the bacteria as an invader and goes into the immune response. It creates cells to seek and destroy the invader. White blood cells are an example of these fighting cells that attack invaders.

In a person with an autoimmune disease, the immune response is "disordered" and cannot tell the difference between foreign cells and body cells. The it produces immunological cells that attack its own cells instead of invaders. These defective antibodies attack the body's cells to such an extent that damage occurs to the body's tissues.

Several examples of autoimmune diseases are:

Rheumatoid Arthritis
A disorder that occurs when antibodies are produced that attacks the joints and cartilage. This chronic inflammation destroys the ability of the joints to move smoothly, causing stiffness, severe pain and deformity. It usually affects the hands, hips and knees.

Myasthenia Gravis
A chronic disease characterized by persistent and progressive muscle weakness and fatigue. This disease frequently affects the face, jaw and neck muscles, and can be treated with medications to help reduce the inflammation.

A disease that causes sclerosis (hardening) of the skin and organs. "Scleroderma" means "hard skin" in Greek. This hardening causes difficulty breathing, digesting, and is a serious, potentially fatal illness.

This disease produces general inflammation, and the affected areas are usually the skin, joints, kidneys and nervous system. Usually characterized by rashes, joint pain, fever, and weakness.

Because autoimmune diseases are difficult to diagnose, if you or anyone that you know chronically suffers from "vague" symptoms like fevers, weakness, joint pain, or rashes, please get an evaluation by a good rheumatologist, who can frequently spot these illnesses before a family doctor can. Don't be afraid to discuss seemingly "trivial" symptoms with your doctors....It could save your life!

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Karyn Moran Holton is a mother of three children. She is a nurse who has been diagnosed with Lupus and raises awareness about Lupus and other under-appreciated autoimmune diseases.

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