Autoimmune Disorders

The immune system is a collection of special cells and chemicals that fight infection-causing agaents such as bacteria and viruses. An autoimmune disorder occurs when a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks their own body tissues. Autoimmune disorders are broadly grouped into two categories: ‘organ specific’ means one organ is affected, while in ‘non-organ-specific’ disorders,multiple organs or systems may be affected. There are around 80 different autoimmune disoreders ranging in severity from mild to disabling, depending on which system of the body is under attack and to what degree. It is thought that sex hormones may be at least partly responsible. There is generally no cure, but the symptoms of autoimmune disorders can be managed.

Autoimmune disorders can affect nearly every organ and system of the body. Some autoimmune disoreders include:

  • Diabetes (type 1)-affects pancreas
  • Graves’ disease– affects the thyroid gland
  • Inflammatory bowel disease– including ulcerative colitis and possibly, Crohn’s disease
  • Multiple sclerosis– affects the nervous system
  • Psoriasis– affects the skin
  • Rheumatoid arthritis– affects the joints
  • Scleroderma– affects the skin and other structures, causing the formation of scar tissue
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus– affects connective tissue and can strike any organ system of the body

What causes the immune system to no longer tell the difference between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory is that some microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) or drugs may trigger some of these changes, especially in people who have genes that make them more likely to get autoimmune disorders. In allergies, the immune system reacts to an outside substance that it normally would ignore. With autoimmune disorders, the immune system reacts to normal body tissues that it would normally ignore.

It can be hard to diagnose an autoimmune disorder, especially in its earlier stages and if multiple organs or systems are involved. Depending on the disorder, diagnosis methods may include:

  • Physical examination
  • Medical history
  • Blood tests , including those to detect autoantibodies
  • Biopsy
  • X-rays

Symptoms of autoimmune disorders vary by the particular disorder but many include fatigue, dizziness, and low grade fever. Symptoms can also vary in severity over time. In some cases, a person may have more than one autoimmune disease; for example, persons with Addison disease often have type 1 diabetes, while persons with sclerosing cholangitis often have ulcerative colitis.

Autoimmune disorders in general cannot be cured, but the condition can be controlled in many cases. Historically, treatments include:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs– to reduce pain and inflammation
  • Corticosteroids– to reduce inflammation
  • Pain-killing medication– such as paracetamol and codeine
  • Immunosuppressant drugs– to inhibit the activity of the immune system
  • Physical therapy– to encourage mobility
  • Treatment for the deficiency– for example, insulin injections in the case of diabetes
  • Surgery– for example to treat bowel blockage in the case of crohn’s disease
  • High-dose immunosuppression– the use of immune system suppressing drugs

If you or someone you love is living with an autoimmune disorder, it’s important to get all the facts on the condition. Though researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmunity, much has been learned about the risk factors involved. Known connections: Women seem to develop autoimmune diseases more often than men, and some believe that infections may play a role in autoimmunity. After an autoimmune disease diagnosis, your main priority should be getting the care you need to manage your particular disorder, and that may mean finding medical experts who specialize in your autoimmune condition.

The outcome depends on the disease. Most autoimmune diseases are chronic, but many can be controlled with treatment.Symptoms of autoimmune disorders can come and go. When symptoms get worse, it is called a flare-up. Complications depend on the disease. Side effects of medications used to suppress the immune system can be severe, such as infections that can be hard to control.Call your health care provider if you develop symptoms of an autoimmune disorder. There is no known prevention for most autoimmune disorders.

Celeste Botonakis

On the Nursing Assistant Guides blog, certified medical assistant Celeste Botonakis explores the daily life of a CMA. She'll keep you up-to-date with the latest on what’s happening in the field, and provides tips for those who are interested in becoming a medical or nursing assistant. Celeste has served in the medical field for over six years, and is passionate about helping people. She currently works at CSR Primary Care in Skokie, Illinois. Click here to learn more about Celeste Botonakis and