What happens when your body attacks itself

Autoimmune diseases are mysterious. I know because I have one.

So do several of my friends, family members, and even some of my coworkers.

In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that 23.5 million Americans are affected by an autoimmune disease, while the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association quotes 50 million. One reason for the different statistics is how many types of diseases are included in the data counts. But, bottom line, this category of diseases impacts a lot of people.

So what exactly is an autoimmune disease? For clarity, the immune system is a network of special cells and organs that protect the body from disease and infection. Typically, the body can tell the difference between what’s you and what’s foreign. But with an autoimmune disease, there’s a glitch and your body can’t tell the difference, so it makes antibodies that attack healthy cells by mistake.

There are more than 80 autoimmune diseases, some of the most common being rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, lupus, celiac, Hashimoto’s, and multiple sclerosis.

These diseases can affect almost any part of the body, and symptoms vary, ranging from fatigue, muscle aches, and fever to depression and inflammation. In more advanced cases, diseases like multiple sclerosis can include symptoms such as blurred vision and even paralysis.

Even though there is no cure for autoimmune diseases, doctors and researchers are working on treatments. Currently, most autoimmune diseases are treated using anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, antimalarials, and immunosuppressives, which stop the immune system from attacking itself.

I personally have eczema, which consists of dry patches that eventually turn into itchy and painful rashes on the skin. It’s uncomfortable, but in most cases my flare-ups can be treated with lotions and corticosteroids.

One of the more frustrating things about autoimmune diseases is getting a diagnosis. Symptoms can be similar, and there’s no one-stop-shop specialist for all the different types of autoimmune diseases. This means that sufferers may have to visit several doctors (rheumatologist, neurologist, dermatologist, and gastroenterologist) to find an answer.

If you think you might have an autoimmune disease, the first step is to share your symptoms with your general practitioner. They will refer you to a specialist, and you can start the journey to finding a diagnosis. Be open and honest with your physicians and urge them talk to each other about your symptoms. It may not be simple, but getting the right treatment can help improve the quality of your life.

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