The symptoms you should take seriously (Photo: Shutterstock)
Autoimmune diseases are the horror stories of the health world. They cause the immune system to launch an all-out attack on your body’s healthy cells and tissues—from your GI tract down to your DNA.
Worry over trademark autoimmune conditions (such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Celiac disease) are everywhere. After all, rheumatoid arthritis increases the risk of heart disease, according to research presented at the International Conference on Nuclear Cardiology and Cardiac CT. Meanwhile, the gluten-free diet (intended for those with Celiac disease) is still going strong. What’s more, all you have to do is turn on the news, and you’re bound to hear something about immune systems turning on themselves.
But that doesn’t mean you need to fret over your chances of developing one.
“It’s common for patients to be worried about immune diseases, and it’s also common for them to be confused by them,” says David T. Rubin, M.D., fellow of the American College of Gastroenterology and chief of gastroenterology, hepatology, and nutrition at The University of Chicago Medicine. “A quick Google search can find lupus as a potential diagnosis for virtually any symptom.” (Symptoms of lupus include unexpected weight loss, fatigue, mouth sores, kidney problems, painful breathing, swollen joints, and rashes—and no two people with the disease suffer from the exact same mix of symptoms.)
However, off of the interwebs, autoimmune disorders are actually pretty rare, affecting only about 0.5 to one percent of the population, says Aaron Clark, doctor of osteopathic medicine, a primary care physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. While women are two to three times more likely than men to have autoimmune-related illnesses—and 2014 research suggests that although lupus is actually twice as common as previously believed—the same research found that the disease affects less than 0.12 percent of women. (Yup, you read that right—way less than one percent).
Other health conditions are much likely to be causing any symptoms ailing you. “For example, joint pain is very rarely due to rheumatoid arthritis or lupus and much more commonly due to injury or overuse,” says Clark.
Unfortunately, though, that’s part of the reason autoimmune diseases are often both overlooked and, on the flip side, over-diagnosed. Misdiagnoses are largely attributed to imperfect diagnostic methods, such as an ANA (antinuclear antibody) test, a blood test that detects abnormal antibodies throughout the body. It can come back positive even in perfectly healthy individuals, says Tammy Utset, M.D., M.P.H., board-certified rheumatologist and lupus specialist at The University of Chicago Medicine. “Some doctors and patients are left going on a wild goose chase for lupus because a patient is fatigued and has a positive ANA,” she says.
Meanwhile, with Celiac disease, it’s important not to diagnose yourself and to instead be evaluated by a gastroenterologist, says Rubin. Not only will eliminating gluten from your diet prior to diagnostic testing mess with your test results, but there is a big difference between getting bloated when you eat gluten-containing foods and having full-fledged Celiac disease, he says. A 2012 Mayo Clinic study found that one in 141 Americans have Celiac disease—far fewer than the one in three who are cutting gluten from their diet.
So if you’re feeling off, go ahead and visit your doctor. But, no, not because you should be panicked about a lingering autoimmune disease. You might just have a cold, a stomach bug, or tired fingers from all your time spent on the computer Googling symptoms.
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