Getting a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease can be very frightening. You may have lots of questions for your doctor about how to treat it and if you will ever recover. You may be concerned that your condition will affect your projected lifespan.
Most people can expect to live a long life with an autoimmune disease, though. There are effective treatments to manage many conditions, though your treatment plan will depend on your diagnosis.
What is autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune disease is any condition where your immune system attacks your own cells. Your immune system is ordinarily designed to protect you from foreign substances that can make you sick. Immune cells usually attack things like bacteria, viruses, and toxins.
In cases of an autoimmune disorder, your immune cells mistake healthy tissue in your body for harmful substances. Your immune system starts to attack your joints, tissue, or organs. As a result, you begin to experience chronic symptoms like pain, swelling, or digestive issues.
There are no cures for autoimmune conditions. They will affect you for the rest of your life. Your doctor can prescribe treatment that manages your symptoms, though.
The causes of autoimmune diseases are unclear, though there may be genetic and environmental triggers for them. Women are more prone to autoimmune diseases than men. They are likely to start having symptoms during their childbearing years. Some conditions run in families, and you may be more likely to develop a condition if others in your family have had it.
Common autoimmune diseases
There are more than 80 identified autoimmune disorders. While they are all different, they have similar symptoms. The most common signs of an autoimmune condition include:
Some of the most common autoimmune conditions include:
- Lupus: a condition that damages joints, skin tissue, and organs
- Rheumatoid arthritis: a chronic form of arthritis that attacks your joints
- Psoriasis: a condition where your skin cells reproduce too quickly and you develop thick, scaly patches on your skin.
- Multiple sclerosis: a condition where your immune system attacks your nervous system and disrupts your brain’s ability to send signals to your muscles
- Type 1 diabetes: a condition where your immune system attacks insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. Without insulin, you are unable to process sugar properly
Treating autoimmune disease
Most autoimmune disorders are not fatal. People can live full lives with a typical life expectancy. Your potential lifespan and your quality of life will depend, though, on getting the right kind of medical care.
Many of these disorders can be managed with medication that alleviates symptoms. Your doctor will discuss your options with you. You will work together to try different prescriptions and doses to find what works best for you.
If you begin a medication regimen, you will need to have regular follow-up appointments with your doctor. Some medications, meanwhile, can have serious side effects that your doctor will need to monitor. You may also need to make changes in your medication over time.
Some conditions also require lifestyle changes. Your doctor may recommend changing your diet to help minimize symptoms. You may need to restrict certain activities for safety reasons. Your doctor may recommend a diet and exercise plan designed to reduce your risk of other health issues like high blood pressure or heart disease. Keeping your body as healthy as possible reduces the risk of complications from immune system issues.
Life-threatening autoimmune conditions
Some autoimmune diseases have a high risk of death associated with them. These conditions are much less common than other autoimmune diseases.
Giant cell myocarditis
This condition causes inflammation of the heart muscles. It can progress very quickly, leading to a rapid decline in health. The only treatment is a heart transplant. The condition is very rare, with only 300 recorded cases.
Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis
This condition leads to sudden inflammation in the brain. It progresses very quickly. It can get better with proper care, but it can also lead to fatal complications.
This is a complex condition that combines symptoms of lupus, systemic sclerosis, polymyositis, and, more rarely, rheumatoid arthritis. It requires long-term use of immune-suppressing medications to prevent debilitating symptoms. It is fatal in about 20% of cases.
With this disease, your immune system attacks your blood vessels. The resulting inflammation of the vessels can lead to severe blood flow issues. Without treatment, you are at risk of organ damage. The condition can be treated with steroids that reduce the inflammation and restore normal blood flow.
Life with autoimmune disease
If you have an autoimmune condition, it’s essential to work with your doctor to treat your symptoms. If you notice that your symptoms change or get worse, you should call your doctor. You may need to update your treatment plan.
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American College of Rheumatology: “Vasculitis.”
Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Network: “Mixed connective tissue disease.”
Johns Hopkins Health: “What Are Common Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?”
National Organization for Rare Diseases: “Giant Cell Myocarditis.”
Office on Women’s Health: “Autoimmune diseases.”
Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania: “Anti-NMDAR Encephalitis.”
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