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Autoimmune Diseases

Summary

What are autoimmune diseases?

Your immune system protects you from disease and infection by attacking germs that get into your body, such as viruses and bacteria. Your immune system can tell that the germs aren't part of you, so it destroys them. If you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks the healthy cells of your organs and tissues by mistake.

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases. They can affect almost any part of your body. For example, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease of the skin that causes hair loss. Autoimmune hepatitis affects the liver. In type 1 diabetes, the immune system attacks the pancreas. And in rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system can attack many parts of the body, including the joints, lungs, and eyes.

What causes autoimmune diseases?

No one is sure why autoimmune diseases happen. But you can't catch them from other people.

Autoimmune diseases do tend to run in families, which means that certain genes may make some people more likely to develop a problem. Viruses, certain chemicals, and other things in the environment may trigger an autoimmune disease if you already have the genes for it.

Who is at risk for autoimmune diseases?

Millions of Americans of all ages have autoimmune diseases. Women develop many types of autoimmune diseases much more often than men. And if you have one autoimmune disease, you are more likely to get another.

What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

The symptoms of an autoimmune disease depend on the part of your body that's affected. Many types of autoimmune diseases cause redness, swelling, heat, and pain, which are the signs and symptoms of inflammation. But other illnesses can cause the same symptoms.

The symptoms of autoimmune diseases can come and go. During a flare-up, your symptoms may get severe for a while. Later on, you may have a remission, which means that your symptoms get better or disappear for a period of time.

How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?

Doctors often have a hard time diagnosing autoimmune diseases. There's usually not a specific test to show whether you have a certain autoimmune disease. And the symptoms can be confusing. That's because many autoimmune diseases have similar symptoms. And some symptoms, such as muscle aches, are common in many other illnesses. So it can take a long time and some visits to different types of doctors to get a diagnosis.

To help your doctor find out if an autoimmune disease is causing your symptoms,

  • Learn about the health conditions in your family history. What health problems did your grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins have? Write down what you learn and share it with your doctor.
  • Keep track of your symptoms, including how long they last and what makes them better or worse. Share your notes with your doctor.
  • See a specialist who deals with the symptoms that bother you most. For example, if you have rash, see a dermatologist (skin doctor).

What are the treatments for autoimmune diseases?

The treatment depends on the disease. In most cases, the goal of treatment is to suppress (slow down) your immune system, and ease swelling, redness, and pain from inflammation. Your doctor may give you corticosteroids or other medicines to help you feel better. For some diseases, you may need treatment for the rest of your life.

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The information on this site should not be used as a substitute for professional medical care or advice. Contact a health care provider if you have questions about your health.