What Does the Term 'Autoimmune Disease' Actually Mean?

You likely know a thing or two about your immune system—you know, that network you want to keep in tip-top shape all winter long. The immune system includes organs, white blood cells and antibodies (or proteins) that help our body ward off invaders like viruses and bacteria.

But what if the immune system malfunctions? Further, what if that malfunction involves a person's immune system turning on them and attacking them? In these cases, the person could have an "autoimmune disease." But what is an autoimmune disease, exactly?

You've likely heard the word thrown around, especially during the pandemic. But what does autoimmune disease actually mean, and how is it different than being immune compromised?

Get the facts.

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Autoimmune Disease Meaning

Cleveland Clinic says an autoimmune disease refers to a condition that occurs when the immune system goes after itself instead of protecting it from viruses, bacteria, parasites and cancer cells. An immune system is designed to protect the body from these foreign invaders. The immune system doesn't mean to attack the body, and what triggers an autoimmune disease is unclear.

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What Is an Example of an Autoimmune Disease?

There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases that we know of, per Cleveland Clinic.

Some common ones include:

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Where Might You Hear "Autoimmune Disease"

You may hear about autoimmune diseases in a variety of places. You might notice ads on TV, social media or billboards with treatments for these diseases. Additionally, you may hear about them on shows or in articles (like this one) focusing on health. If you have a family, friend or colleague with one, they may discuss it. A doctor may mention it to you if you're experiencing hallmark symptoms of one, such as fatigue, dizziness, pain and depression. They may want to run tests to rule out an autoimmune disease.

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Where Did Autoimmune Diseases Come From?

At the turn of the last century, Paul R. Ehrlich noted that a person could have an immune reaction that could trigger the formation of antibodies harmful to that individual. He referred to it as "horror autotoxicus," or the horror of self-toxicity. In the 1950s, autoimmune diseases became more widely recognized and accepted, according to a 2022 review.

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Other Words Like Autoimmune Disease

Several words sound like and may get even get confused with autoimmune disease. Here are a few, plus what they really mean.

  • Immunocompromised/Immune compromisedThis term describes an underactive immune system that struggles to fight off invaders. But the immune system is not necessarily creating harmful antibodies that turn on the body. Another word for immunocompromised is immunodeficiency.

  • Immune suppressants: These are drugs that stop your immune system from harming healthy cells and tissues. Organ transplant recipients and people with autoimmune diseases may take immune suppressants.

  • Underlying condition: This term is used to describe a medical condition that puts someone at an increased risk for something else. For example, Type 2 diabetes puts people at an increased risk for severe COVID-19.

  • Antibodies. Your immune system produces antibodies to remove foreign invaders like viruses.

  • Autoantibodies. Autoantibodies can destroy cells with antibodies on them. As a result, it's easier for white blood cells to ruin these cells. Some autoimmune diseases are triggered by autoantibodies.

Next up: 10 Rare Autoimmune Diseases That Don't Get Enough Attention