When your body is attacked—perhaps by a virus or germs on a nail you stepped on—your immune system defends you. It sees and kills the germs that might hurt you. But when the system doesn’t work right, this process can cause harm. Immune cells can mistake your body’s own cells as invaders and attack them. This “friendly fire” can affect almost any part of the body. It can sometimes affect many parts of the body at once. This is called autoimmunity (meaning self-immunity).
No one knows why the immune system treats some body parts like germs. We do know that you can’t catch autoimmune diseases from another person. Most scientists think that our genes and things in the environment are involved. If you have a certain gene or combination of genes, you may be at higher risk for autoimmune disease. But you won’t get the disease until something around you turns on your immune system. This may include the sun, infections, drugs, or, in some women, pregnancy.
Autoimmunity can affect almost any organ or body system. The exact problems one has with autoimmunity (or its diseases) depends on which tissues are targeted. If the skin is the target, you may have skin rashes, blisters, or color changes. If it’s the thyroid gland, you may be tired, gain weight, be m
ore sensitive to cold, and have muscle aches. It it’s the joints, you may have joint pain, stuffiness, and loss of function. You may know which organ or system is affected from the start. But you may not know the site of the attack. In many people, the first symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches, and low fever.
Having a chronic disease can affect almost every part of your life. The problems you might have with an autoimmune disease vary. They may include:
How you look and your self-esteem—Depending on your disease, you may have discolored or damaged skin or hair loss. Your joints may look different. These can all affect how you look different. These can all affect how you look and your self-esteem. Such problems can’t always be prevented. But their effects can hide a skin rash. Surgery can correct a malformed joint.
Caring you yourself—Painful joints or weak muscles can make it hard to do simple tasks. You may have trouble climbing stairs, making your bed, or brushing your hair. If doing daily tasks is hard, talk with a physical therapist. The therapist can teach you exercises to improve strength and function. An occupational therapist can show you new ways to do things or tools to make tasks easier. Sometimes regular exercise or simple devices can help you do more things on your own.
Family relationships—Family members may not understand why you don’t have energy to do things you used to do. They may even think you are just being lazy. But they may also be overly concerned and eager to help you. They may not let you do the things you can do. They may even give up their own interests to be with you. Learn as much as you can about your disease. Share what you learn with your family. Involve them in counseling or a support group. It may help them better understand the disease and how they can help.
Sexual relations—Sexual relationships can also be affected. For men, diseases that affect blood vessels can lead to problems with erection. In women, damage to glands that produce moisture can lead to vaginal dryness. This makes intercourse painful. In both men and women, pain, weakness, or stiff joints may make it hard for them to move the way they once did. They may not be sure about how they look. Or they may be afraid that their partner will no longer find them attractive. With communication, good medical care, and perhaps counseling, many of these issues can be overcome or at least worked around.
Pregnancy and childbearing—In the past, women with some autoimmune dis
eases were told not to have children. But better treatments and understanding have changed that advice. Autoimmune diseases can affect pregnancy, and pregnancy can affect autoimmune diseases. But women with many such diseases can safely have children. How a pregnancy turns out can vary by disease and disease severity. If you have an autoimmune disease, you should consult your doctor about having children.
The following are a number of nonprofit organizations that can offer additional information about autoimmune diseases. They may also have patient resources, local chapters and support groups.
National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
1 AMS Circle
Bethesda, MD 20892-3675
Phone: (301) 495-4484
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Office of Communications
Building 31, Room 7A50
31 Center Drive, MSC 2520
Bethesda, MD 20982-2520
Phone: (301) 496-5717
National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse
1 Information Way
Bethesda, MD 20892-3560
Phone: (301) 654-3327 or (800) 860-8747
American Academy of Dermatology
930 M. Meacham Road
P.O. Box 4014
Schaumburg, IL 60168-4014
Phone: (847) 330-0230
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons
P.O. Box 2058
Des Plaines, IL 60017
Phone: (800) 824-2663
American College of Rheumatology
1800 Century Place, Suite 250
Atlanta, CA 30345
Phone: (404) 633-1870
American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association
22100 Gratiot Avenue
East Detroit, MI 48201
Phone: (596) 776-3900