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Studies show that the incidence of autoimmune diseases is rising, but scientists are not sure why this is happening. Although the exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown, it is common among young to middle-aged women. Find out if you are at risk.

According to the latest research published by Mayo Clinic researchers, a woman's lifetime risk for acquiring autoimmune disease is around eight percent, while a man's risk is at five percent. This means that one in twelve women, and one in twenty men may develop a disorder, which involves the body's immune system attacking its own tissues. If that does not sound alarming enough, we can ask the fifty million Americans, mostly women, who are currently suffering from this type of health problem, what it is like to have low-grade fever, chronic fatigue, and other vague physical and mental symptoms.

What is an Autoimmune Disease?

The immune system is the body's defense against “foreign invaders,” which can harm or infect the cells and tissues. These harmful invaders usually include viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other parasites or toxins that manage to break through the barriers of the skin, respiratory system or gastrointestinal system. Our immune system develops from birth and adapts to the environment, acquiring the ability to produce special proteins called antibodies. These antibodies can attach to these invaders so that the body recognizes them as foreign substances. Then they are destroyed by activated white blood cells and the body's health is restored.

When one acquires an autoimmune disorder, the body mistakes its own healthy cells and tissues as foreign, and triggers it to produce antibodies and activate cells to attack itself.

Just like an infection, the result is inflammation, which becomes chronic. The inflammation may affect a certain part of the body that is targeted by the autoimmune reaction, such as the joints. However, it may also affect several parts of the body at the same time, including the heart, the skin, the nerves, the blood vessels, and other organs.

There are several types of autoimmune disease with varying clinical signs and symptoms, but most people who have one or more of these disorders experience low-grade fever, fatigue, joint pains, skin rashes, and a general feeling of being ill.

What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

The exact cause of autoimmune disorders is unknown. Scientists, however, believe that genetic, as well as environmental factors play a significant role in people developing at least one out of more than 80 types of autoimmune disorders. Studies also show that interactions between genetic predisposition and environmental exposures increase the risk of acquiring these diseases.

Autoimmune Disease Risk Factors

Studies show that women have the greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease, with one in twelve probably acquiring the disorder sometime in their life.

In contrast, only one in twenty men are likely to be affected. As a result, 80% of people who have autoimmune disease are female, and most of them are young to middle-aged adults at diagnosis. It is not yet established why more women are affected, but researchers are looking into hormonal and genetic mechanisms.

Studies on autoimmune disorders have found some positive correlation between the disease and factors such as:

  • smoking

  • short fertile period

  • length of breast-feeding

  • history of atopic allergies

  • psychosocial stress

  • level of education

  • history of thyroid condition

  • use of insulin

  • history of viral infection

  • use of hormone replacement therapy

  • history of pre-eclampsia (during pregnancy)

  • occupational exposure to crystalline silica

Your Risk Of Acquiring Common Autoimmune Diseases

Studies show that the incidence of certain autoimmune diseases is continuing to rise. These diseases include lupus, celiac disease, and diabetes type 1.

Researchers cannot fully explain why, but some experts think that environmental factors have a lot to do with the increased risk of developing autoimmune disorders. They explain that genetic changes do not happen over a short period of time to result in rapid increases in autoimmune diseases, so environmental factors may be responsible.

In another long-term study, it was estimated that about four percent of women (1 in 28) will develop the most common autoimmune disease, which is rheumatoid arthritis. On the other hand, less than two percent (1 in 59) of men will have the same disease. In the study, it was found that the second most common autoimmune disorder was polymyalgia rheumatica, with women and men having a lifetime risk of 2.4% and 1.7%, respectively.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects the linings of the joints, resulting in stiffness, swelling, and destruction.

Polymyalgia rheumatica is another inflammatory disease characterized by muscle pain, stiffness, low-grade fever, fatigue, and feelings of ill health.

Other common autoimmune diseases that could affect up to 1% of women (and fewer men) include systemic lupus erythematosus or lupus, giant cell arteritis, psoriatic arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, and primary Sjögrens syndrome.

When to Consult a Doctor

The common symptoms of autoimmune diseases are often vague and similar to many other conditions. However, if you have had unexplained, lingering  symptoms of low grade fever, fatigue, and a general feeling of being ill, it is best to see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Many autoimmune diseases are chronic (long-term) but may be controlled with treatment. However, without adequate treatment, complications may arise, and other organs, such as the heart and kidneys, may be affected. While symptoms may come and go, worsening of symptoms (flare-ups) may also occur.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Autoimmune Disease

It is not always easy to diagnose an autoimmune disease because it can mimic other diseases. Some of the laboratory tests that can aid in diagnosis include complete bloods counts (CBC), urinalysis, antinuclear antibody (ANA) tests, autoantibody tests, metabolic panel tests, C-reactive protein (CRP), and erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR).

There is no specific cure for autoimmune disorders, but treatment may help control inflammation and the autoimmune processes, reduce symptoms, and maintain the ability to fight disease.

Depending on the specific type of disorder you have, your doctor will suggest treatments that may:

  • reduce abnormal immune responses and inflammation, such as immunosuppressive drugs. These include corticosteroids, azathioprine, mycophenolate, cyclophosphamide, sirolimus, and tacrolimus.

  • replace substances that the body lacks due to the disease. These include vitamin B12 (in celiac disease), insulin (in type 1 diabetes), or thyroid hormone (in Hashimoto's thyroiditis).

  • replace blood through transfusions, if needed

  • help improve movements, through physical therapy, if the joints, bones, or muscles are affected.

Read full article

  • WebMD. 1 in 12 Women Will Have Autoimmune Disease.
  • Medscape. Environmental Epidemiology and Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease.
  • NIH. Understanding Autoimmune Diseases.
  • Medical News Today. Autoimmune Disease Rates Increasing.
  • Mindmap by
  • Photo courtesy of Kristin "Shoe" Shoemaker by Flickr :

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