The term "autoimmune disease" refers to a varied group of more than 80 serious, chronic illnesses that involve almost every human organ system. It includes diseases of the nervous, gastrointestinal, and endocrine systems as well as skin and other connective tissues, eyes blood, and blood vessel. In all of these diseases, the underlying problem is similar--the body's immune system becomes misdirected, attacking the very organs it was designed to protect.
A WOMEN'S ISSUE
For reasons we do not understand, about 75 percent of autoimmune diseases occur in women, most frequently during the childbearing years. Hormones are thought to play a role, because some autoimmune illnesses occur more frequently after menopause, others suddenly improve during pregnancy, with flare-ups occurring after delivery, while still others will get worse during pregnancy.
Autoimmune diseases also seem to have a genetic component, but, mysteriously, they can cluster in families as different illnesses. For example, a mother may have lupus erythematosus; her daughter, diabetes; her grandmother, rheumatoid arthritis. Research is shedding light on genetic as well as hormonal and environmental risk factors that contribute to the causes of these diseases.
Individually, autoimmune diseases are not very common, with the exception of thyroid disease, diabetes, and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). However, taken as a whole, they represent the fourth-largest cause of disability among women in the United States.
A NEED FOR KNOWLEDGE
Autoimmune diseases remain among the most poorly understood and poorly recognized of any category of illnesses. Individual diseases range from the benign to the severe. Symptoms vary widely, notably from one illness to another, but even within the same disease. And because the diseases affect multiple body systems, their symptoms are often misleading, which hinders accurate diagnosis. To help women live longer, healthier lives, a better understanding of these diseases is needed, as well as providing early diagnosis and treatment.
MAJOR AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES - CONNECTIVE TISSUE DISEASES:
SYSTEMIC LUPUS ERYTHEMATOSUS (SLE)
An inflammation of the connective tissues, SLE can afflict every organ system. It is up to nine times more common in women than men and strikes black women three times as often as white women. The condition is aggravated by sunlight.
Symptoms: Fever, weight loss, hair loss, mouth and nose sores, malaise, fatigue, seizures and symptoms of mental illness. Ninety percent of patients experience joint inflammation similar to rheumatoid arthritis. Fifty percent develop a classic "butterfly" rash on the nose and cheeks. Raynaud's phenomenon (extreme sensitivity to cold in the hands and feet) appears in about 20 percent of people with SLE.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a systemic disorder in which immune cells attack and inflame the membrane around joints. It also can affect the heart, lungs, and eyes. Of the estimated 2.1 million Americans with rheumatoid arthritis, approximately 1.5 million (71 percent) are women.
Symptoms: Inflamed and/or deformed joints, loss of strength, swelling, pain.
SYSTEMIC SCLEROSIS (SCLERODERMA)
Scleroderma is an activations of immune cells which produces scar tissue in the skin, internal organs, and small blood vessels. It affects women three times more often than men overall, but increases to a rate 15 times greater for women during childbearing years, and appears to be more common among black women.
Symptoms: In most patients, the first symptoms are Raynaud's phenomenon and swelling and puffiness of the fingers or hands. Skin thickening follows a few months later. Other symptoms include skin ulcers on the fingers, joint stiffness in the hands, pain , sore throat, and diarrhea.
Sjogren's syndrome (also called Sjogren's disease) is a chronic, slowly progressing inability to secrete saliva and tears. It can occur alone or with rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, or systemic lupus erythematosus. Nine out of 10 cases occur in women, most often at or around mid-life.
Symptoms: Dryness of the eyes and mouth, swollen neck glands, difficulty swallowing or talking, unusual tastes or smells, thirst, tongue ulcers, and severe dental caries.
MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS (MS)
A disease of the central nervous system that usually first appears between the ages of 20 and 40, and affects women twice as often as men. MS is the leading cause of disability among young adults.
Symptoms: Numbness, weakness, tingling or paralysis in one or more limbs, impaired vision and eye pain, tremor, lack of coordination or unsteady gait and rapid involuntary eye movement. A history of at least two episodes of a cluster of symptoms is necessary for a diagnosis of MS. Because MS affects the central nervous system, symptoms may be misdiagnosed as mental illness.
This is a chronic autoimmune disorder characterized by gradual muscle weakness, often appearing first in the face.
Symptoms: Drooping eyelids, double vision, and difficulty breathing, talking, chewing, and swallowing.
Guillain-Barr syndrome is an acute illness that causes severe nerve damage. Two-thirds of all cases occur after a viral infection.
Symptoms: Tingling in the fingers and toes, general muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, and, in severe cases, paralysis.
Treatment: Supportive care until the condition is stabilized, then rehabilitation therapy combined with whirlpool baths to relieve pain and facilitate retraining of movements. A process called plasmapheresis, which removes plasma and nerve-damaging antibodies from the blood, is used during the first few weeks after a severe attack and may improve the chance of a full recovery.
Hashimoto's Thyroiditis is a type of autoimmune disease in which the immune system destroys the thyroid, the gland that helps set the rate of metabolism. It attacks women 50 times more often than men.
Symptoms: Low levels of thyroid hormone cause mental and physical slowing, greater sensitivity to cold, weight gain, coarsening of the skin, and goiter (a swelling of the neck due to an enlarged thyroid gland).
Graves' disease is one of the most common autoimmune diseases, affecting 13 million people and targeting women seven times as often as men. Patients with Graves' disease produce an excessive amount of thyroid hormone.
Symptoms: Weight loss due to increased energy expenditure; increased appetite, heart rate, and blood pressure; tremors, nervousness and sweating; frequent bowel movements.
INSULIN-DEPENDENT (TYPE 1) DIABETES
Type 1 diabetes is caused by too little insulin production in the pancreas, and usually occurs in children and young adults, but it can occur at any age.
Symptoms: Increased thirst, increased urination, weight
INFLAMMATORY BOWEL DISEASE
Inflammatory bowel disease describes two autoimmune disorder of the small intestine--Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.
Symptoms of Crohn's disease: Persistent diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and general fatigue.
Symptoms of ulcerative colitis: Bloody diarrhea, pain, urgent bowel movements, joint pains, and skin lesions.
In both diseases, there is a risk of significant weight loss and malnutrition.
OTHER AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES VASCULITIS SYNDROMES
This is a broad and heterogeneous group of diseases characterized by inflammation and damage to the blood vessels, thought to be brought on by an autoimmune response. Any type, size, and location of blood vessel may be involved. Vasculitis may occur alone or in combination with other diseases, and may be confined to one organ or involve several organ systems.
HEMATOLOGIC AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
Blood also can be affected by autoimmune disorder. In autoimmune hemolytic anemia, red blood cells are prematurely destroyed by antibodies. Other autoimmune diseases of the blood include autoimmune thrombocytopenic purpura and autoimmune neutropenia.
AUTOIMMUNE SKIN DISEASES
The skin frequently gives the first sign that an autoimmune diseases is present. In many of the diseases mentioned, the skin is only peripherally involved, but in others, the skin is the primary site of the disease. One of the foremost is psoriasis, a common skin disease that results from a malfunction in the life cycle of skin cells. The process of skin cell production that normally takes about a month is speeded up to several days, resulting in a build-up of thick scales.