What Are Some Examples of Autoimmune Diseases?

immune system, autoimmunity, autoimmune disease

An autoimmune disease is a disease where your body produces antibodies, proteins that attack your own tissues, organs, glands, and cells. This attack leads to inflammation, deterioration, and in some cases, partial or total destruction of the target of the antibodies. The following are some of the more common autoimmune diseases.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a painful, disabling condition that usually targets the synovium—or membrane—covering the joints in your hands and feet.

While the joints of your hands or feet wear with age, the symptoms of RA are different. Instead of just aches, you may experience swelling, stiffness, and even deformity and dysfunction of the joints that are under attack from your immune system.

Conditions sometimes associated with RA are Sjogren’s, a condition characterized by dry eyes and mouth, and psoriasis, which causes dry, scaling skin. Psoriasis is a common condition in the United States, affecting about two out of 100 people. Because it has a genetic component, psoriasis often affects related family members.

Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is focused on reducing or controlling the symptoms to reduce discomfort and damage to your joints. This treatment could take the form of anti-inflammatory or immune-suppressing drugs.

Multiple Sclerosis

Targeting the central nervous system, multiple sclerosis (MS) is an unpredictable, sometimes crippling disease where your immune system attacks the sheath of protective fiber that protects the tissue of your central nervous system.

As that fibrous sheath, called myelin, is destroyed, there is interference in communication between the body and the brain. People with MS often suffer vision problems, fatigue, pain, and other symptoms as lesions build up where the myelin is destroyed.

The cause of MS, like so many other autoimmune diseases, remains unknown but is believed to afflict genetically susceptible persons who experience triggering environmental conditions.

Many people manage the fatigue and limitations of MS to live relatively normal lives. Others experience rapid decline and may suffer paralysis, blindness, and premature death.

Research into medications and treatments to halt this devastating condition remain underway. Because there are different courses of the disease, different treatment protocols must be tried, and evaluated, over time.

Immune-Mediated or Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

When the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed by an autoimmune response, type 1 diabetes mellitus is the result.

Insulin is a hormone used by the body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. When blood sugar, or glucose, levels are too high, damage to kidneys, eyesight, limbs, and other chronic physical trouble can result over time. Type 1 diabetes may is frequently diagnosed only after some degree of permanent pancreatic damage has occurred.

Often discovered before age 30, type 1 diabetes can be diagnosed as early as the first month of life. According to the American Diabetes Association, about 1.25 million children and adults in American have type 1 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes requires lifelong management strategies to maintain health and avoid physical damage.

Close relatives of a person with type 1 diabetes have a higher risk of developing the disease. Research is ongoing to identify preventative strategies for family members at risk.

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

Inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD) are caused by autoimmune dysfunctions, including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. With these conditions, the immune system mistakenly attacks cells in the intestine or gut. About one in 500 Americans suffer from IBD.

Symptoms of the chronic intestinal inflammation caused by IBD include nausea, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and pain. High-dose corticosteroids like prednisone are used to treat IBD but come with troubling side effects.

Long-term use of prednisone can lead to thinning and breaking of bones, and a higher incidence of infection. Surgical removal of the lower intestine (colon) eliminates ulcerative colitis and increased risk of colon cancer.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Attacking skin, joints, kidneys, and other organs, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that effects about one in every 2000 Americans. Prevalence is higher in young, African-American women. Because of its broad symptoms, lupus is often difficult to diagnose quickly.

The fatigue, rashes, and pain of lupus are usually treated with anti-inflammatory medications. Like with IBD, close monitoring is needed to avoid serious side effects of drugs taken to relieve or halt symptoms.


The itchy, red patches that form on those with psoriasis are caused by dysfunction the immune system that causes skin cells to grow rapidly. There are several forms of psoriasis, the most common is plaque psoriasis, which is a buildup of skin cells that cause patches on the scalp, knees, elbows, and back. About 7.5 million people suffer from psoriasis.

Psoriasis is the most common autoimmune disease, with a strong genetic component, and effects men and women equally. There are several treatment options for psoriasis, depending on severity, including topical drugs, medications, and light therapy. It is important to screen for, and treat, a related form of arthritis, called psoriatic arthritis.


About 300,000 Americans suffer scleroderma, which is a hardening of the skin, connective tissues, and veins. The experience of scleroderma, more than other autoimmune diseases, is highly individual. Many patients with scleroderma also suffer from Raynaud’s syndrome, a condition involving sensitivity to cold, and spasms and ulcers on the toes and fingertips.

More women than men suffer from scleroderma. The genetic component of the disease is considered to confer susceptibility, rather than directly causing the disease. There are a number of treatment options, depending on the expression of the disease in each individual.

Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases

Affecting as many as 10 percent of the population, destruction, or stimulation, of thyroid tissue by the immune system by antibodies causes Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hypothyroidism), and Graves’ disease (hyperthyroidism).

Symptoms of both these conditions are nonspecific and can develop quickly, or over time. Some symptoms of these diseases include nervousness, fatigue, intolerance to cold or heat, changes in hair, weight gain or loss.

Women are more likely to suffer from thyroid disorders. The diseases are also more prevalent in families with a history of autoimmune disease.

The vagaries of symptoms may cause people to delay seeing their doctor, but a diagnosis of thyroid conditions can be made with a clinical examination, blood tests, and imaging tests.

For patients with underactive thyroid, thyroid hormone replacement medication is a good option. Care and monitoring are needed to ensure dosing, and products used, are optimized for each individual.

Treatment of a hyperactive thyroid includes lifetime use of antithyroid drugs or destruction of the thyroid gland through surgery or radioactive iodine (RAI) ablation.


Fairweather, DeLisa  and Rose, Noel. "Women and Autoimmune Diseases." Emerging Infectious Diseases (EID) Journal. International Conference on Women and Infectious Diseases (ICWID). Volume 10, Number 11—November 2004 

MedlinePlus/U.S. National Library of Medicine, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health "Autoimmune Diseases. Accessed October 26, 2016. 

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