9 Autoimmune Diseases Every Woman Needs to Know About
What is autoimmune disease?
To get a better sense of lupus, watch this video to learn more about the condition, and whether or not you or a loved one may have it.
Lupus attacks the skin, joints, blood vessels, and/or internal organs, causing inflammation. Systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, is the most common and serious type of this disorder.
At least 1.5 million Americans have lupus, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus strikes women more than men, especially women of childbearing age.
“The difficulty with lupus is that it can manifest itself in different ways,” says Dr. Rose, a senior lecturer in pathology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. “It tends to be a multiple-system disease,” with symptoms affecting many different organs.
Its most distinctive feature is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose. Other common symptoms include fatigue, pain, joint swelling, skin rashes on sun-exposed areas, and fever. Lupus can also cause anemia; swelling in the hands, legs, feet, or around the eyes; chest pain when breathing; hair loss; mouth ulcers; and fingers that turn white or blue when they’re cold.
It’s believed that genetic, hormonal, and environmental factors cause lupus. Potential environmental triggers include fatigue, stress, infection, exposure to ultraviolet light, and taking certain types of medicines, namely sulfa drugs (which make people more sensitive to sunlight), penicillin or other antibiotics, and tetracycline.
Lupus treatment is aimed at easing pain and inflammation with anti-inflammatory medicines (like aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen). Depending on the severity of symptoms, some lupus patients may be prescribed corticosteroids to suppress inflammation and antimalarial drugs to decrease antibody production.
The skin condition most commonly affects knees, elbows, and the lower back, but yes, it is possible to have psoriasis on your face too.
Even experts are stumped by multiple sclerosis (MS), the tricky autoimmune disease that affects women two to three times more often than men. To add to the confusion, there’s no diagnostic test for the disease, and one patient can experience wildly different symptoms from another.What experts do know? MS occurs when the body starts to attack its own central nervous system, and certain factors can raise one’s risk of developing the disease.Watch the video to learn about the five traits that might raise your risk of MS.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disabling autoimmune disease that can be tricky to diagnose.
Your thyroid—a small gland in your neck—has a huge impact on your body. It produces thyroid hormone (TH), which is responsible for keeping your metabolism, heartbeat, temperature, mood, and more, in check. An underactive thyroid doesn't produce enough TH, and that can cause a host of health problems. Watch the video for the warning signs.
This autoimmune condition attacks the thyroid too, but instead of destroying thyroid cells, it leads to the overproduction of thyroid hormone. Too much thyroid hormone can cause an enlarged thyroid, a rapid heartbeat, nervousness or irritability, frequent bowel movements, weight loss, and sleep problems. Many people with Graves’ disease develop eye problems like swelling or bulging eyes. Less commonly, it can cause reddening and thickening of the skin on the lower legs and tops of the feet.
Graves’ disease is the most common cause of overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism) in the US. It affects about one in 200 people and is up to eight times more common in women than men, according to the American Thyroid Association.
What causes Graves’ disease? No one knows for sure. Genes, hormones, and environmental factors, including stress, pregnancy, and infection, may play a role.
Typically, patients are given antithyroid medicines to control, but not cure, their hyperthyroidism.
“If that doesn’t work, we can either partially or fully destroy the thyroid,” Dr. Rose explains. That can be done with surgery or with radioactive iodine, which is taken in a pill and absorbed by the thyroid, where it destroys thyroid cells. You’ll likely need to take thyroid hormone to replace what your body no longer makes if you undergo one of these options.
Type 1 diabetes
In people with type 1 diabetes, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
Insulin is a hormone that helps blood sugar get to the cells of the body for energy. Without it, the body’s cells starve and blood sugar levels spike, causing damage to the heart, eyes, kidneys, and nerves. Without treatment, type 1 diabetes can lead to coma or death.
More than 1.2 million Americans have this autoimmune form of diabetes, which is usually diagnosed in children and young adults. Symptoms include extreme thirst, hunger, frequent urination, fatigue, weight loss, slow-to-heal sores, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, and blurry vision.
Why the body turns on itself in this way remains unclear. Most people inherit risk factors, but environment is also important: Type 1 diabetes occurs more often in cold climates, and viruses and early diet may also play a role, according to the American Diabetes Association.
The goal of treatment is to maintain normal blood sugar levels through diet, exercise, blood sugar monitoring, and medication–specifically, taking insulin.
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There are only a handful of autoimmune diseases with a well-known trigger, says Dr. Rose. “The poster child for that is celiac disease.”
When people with this autoimmune condition consume gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, their immune system responds by attacking the small intestine. The resulting damage prevents the body from properly absorbing nutrients from food–and that can pose long-term health risks.
Celiac disease tends to run in families. If you have a parent, child, or sibling with this disorder, you have a one in 10 chance of developing it yourself, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. Researchers estimate that celiac disease affects one out of every 100 people and that 2.5 million Americans have it but haven’t been diagnosed.
In children, celiac causes a plethora of digestive symptoms, such as bloating, vomiting, chronic diarrhea, or constipation. In adults, GI symptoms are less common, while other symptoms–such as fatigue, anemia, missed menstrual periods, or osteoporosis–might signal an underlying problem.
The good news is that symptoms go away when you stop eating gluten, Dr. Rose says. That's why standard treatment for celiac disease is sticking to a gluten-free diet.
Vasculitis is an umbrella term for a group of disorders in which the immune system attacks and inflames the body’s own blood vessels. The damage can impede blood flow throughout the body, depending on the vessels and organs affected. Most forms of vasculitis are rare and the causes are unknown. It can occur by itself or with other diseases, such as lupus.
Giant cell arteritis (formerly called temporal arteritis), the most common form of vasculitis in adults, strikes after age 50 and affects more women than men. Symptoms include headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, jaw pain, and fever. It can also cause vision loss.
Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (formerly known as Wegener’s granulomatosis) affects the sinuses, lungs, and kidneys.
Steroids, such as prednisone, can help reduce inflammation, while immune-suppressing drugs may be prescribed to decrease the body’s immune response. Another option is rituximab, a newer cancer therapy being used to treat some autoimmune diseases, including certain types of vasculitis. “We need to learn more, but there are certainly lots of examples where one [chemical or compound] is treating multiple diseases,” Dr. Diamond explains.