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MARCH 2016

UNDERSTANDING
AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES Autoimmune diseases refer to problems with the
acquired immune systems reactions. In an
When an intruder invades your bodylike a cold virus autoimmune reaction, antibodies and immune cells
or bacteria on a thorn that pricks your skinyour target the bodys own healthy tissues by mistake,
immune system protects you. It tries to identify, kill, signaling the body to attack them.
and eliminate the invaders that might hurt you. But
sometimes problems with your immune system cause AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES
it to mistake your bodys own healthy cells as invaders
Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of
and then repeatedly attacks them. This is called an
the body, including the heart, brain, nerves, muscles,
autoimmune disease. (Autoimmune means immunity
skin, eyes, joints, lungs, kidneys, glands, the digestive
against the self.)
tract, and blood vessels.
THE IMMUNE SYSTEM The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is
Your immune system is the network of cells and inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain,
tissues throughout your body that work together to and swelling. How an autoimmune disease affects you
defend you from invasion and infection. You can think depends on what part of the body is targeted. If the
of it as having two parts: the acquired and the innate disease affects the joints, as in rheumatoid arthritis,
immune systems. you might have joint pain, stiffness, and loss of
function. If it affects the thyroid, as in Graves disease
The acquired (or adaptive) immune system develops and thyroiditis, it might cause tiredness, weight gain,
as a person grows. It remembers invaders so that it and muscle aches. If it attacks the skin, as it does in
can fight them if they come back. When the immune scleroderma/systemic sclerosis, vitiligo, and systemic
system is working properly, foreign invaders provoke lupus erythematosus (SLE), it can cause rashes,
the body to activate immune cells against the invaders blisters, and color changes.
and to produce proteins called antibodies that attach
to the invaders so that they can be recognized and Many autoimmune diseases dont restrict themselves
destroyed. The more primitive innate (or inborn) to one part of the body. For example, SLE can affect
immune system activates white blood cells to destroy the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, nerves, blood vessels,
invaders, without using antibodies. and more. Type 1 diabetes can affect your glands,
eyes, kidneys, muscles, and more.

The mission of the National prevention of arthritis and National Institute of Fax: 3017186366
Institute of Arthritis and musculoskeletal and Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Email: NIAMSinfo@mail.nih.gov
Musculoskeletal and skin diseases; the training of and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Website: www.niams.nih.gov
Skin Diseases (NIAMS), a part basic and clinical scientists to Information Clearinghouse
of the U.S. Department of carry out this research; and the National Institutes of Health If you need more information
Health and Human Services dissemination of information on 1 AMS Circle about available resources in your
National Institutes of Health research progress in these Bethesda, MD 208923675 language or another language,
(NIH), is to support research diseases. Phone: 3014954484 please visit our website or
into the causes, treatment, and Toll free: 87722NIAMS contact the NIAMS Information
(8772264267) Clearinghouse.
TTY: 3015652966
NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ARTHRITIS AND MUSCULOSKELETAL AND SKIN DISEASES (NIAMS)

No one is sure what causes autoimmune diseases. In of federally and privately supported clinical trials for a
most cases, a combination of factors is probably at variety of autoimmune disorders, visit
work. For example, you might have a genetic www.clinicaltrials.gov.
tendency to develop a disease and then, under the
right conditions, an outside invader like a virus might KEY WORDS
trigger it. Acquired immune system. The part of the immune
The list of diseases that fall into the autoimmune system that develops as a person grows. It employs
category includes: antibodies and immune cells to fight harmful
substances.
alopecia areata pernicious anemia Antibody. A special protein produced by the bodys
autoimmune hemolytic polyarteritis nodosa immune system that recognizes and helps fight
anemia infectious agents and other foreign substances that
polymyositis
autoimmune hepatitis invade the body.
primary biliary cirrhosis
dermatomyositis Antigen. A foreign substance that triggers the
psoriasis
diabetes (type 1) production of antibodies when it is introduced into the
rheumatoid arthritis
some forms of juvenile body.
scleroderma/systemic
idiopathic arthritis
sclerosis Autoimmune disease. A disease that results when
glomerulonephritis
Sjgrens syndrome the immune system mistakenly attacks the bodys own
Graves disease tissues.
systemic lupus
Guillain-Barr syndrome erythematosus
Corticosteroids. Potent anti-inflammatory hormones
idiopathic some forms of thyroiditis that are made naturally in the body or synthetically
thrombocytopenic purpura
some forms of uveitis (man-made) for use as drugs. They are also called
myasthenia gravis
vitiligo glucocorticoids. The most commonly prescribed drug
some forms of myocarditis of this type is prednisone.
granulomatosis with
multiple sclerosis polyangiitis (Wegeners)
Diabetes, type 1. A condition in which the immune
pemphigus/pemphigoid system destroys insulin-producing cells of the
pancreas, making it impossible for the body to use
glucose (blood sugar) for energy. Type 1 diabetes
The treatment depends on the disease, but in most usually occurs in children and young adults.
cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation.
Sometimes doctors prescribe corticosteroids or Graves disease. An autoimmune disease of the
immunosuppressive drugs. thyroid gland that results in the overproduction of
thyroid hormone. This causes such symptoms as
PROGRESS AND PROMISE nervousness, heat intolerance, heart palpitations, and
unexplained weight loss.
Further research should continue to enhance the
understanding of the genetics and causes of Immune system. A complex network of specialized
autoimmune disorders and result in improvements in cells and organs that work together to defend the body
diagnosing and treating these diseases. For against attacks by foreign invaders, such as bacteria
information on autoimmune disease research that is and viruses.
supported by the National Institute of Arthritis and Immunosuppressive drugs. Drugs that suppress the
Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, visit immune response and can be used to treat
www.niams.nih.gov/Research/default.asp. For a listing autoimmune disease. Unfortunately, because these

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NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ARTHRITIS AND MUSCULOSKELETAL AND SKIN DISEASES (NIAMS)

drugs also suppress normal immunity, they leave the Systemic lupus erythematosus. An autoimmune
body at risk for infection. disease affecting primarily young women. Many parts
of the body can be affected, including the joints, skin,
Inflammation. A reaction of body tissues to injury or
kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain.
disease, typically marked by five signs: swelling,
redness, heat, pain, and loss of function. Thyroiditis. An inflammation of the thyroid gland that
causes the gland to become underactive. This results
Innate immune system. The part of the immune
in symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, weight gain,
system that is more primitive. It employs types of white
cold intolerance, and muscle aches.
blood cells called granulocytes and monocytes to
destroy harmful substances. Vitiligo. A disorder in which the immune system
destroys pigment-making cells called melanocytes.
Psoriatic arthritis. A type of arthritis associated with
This results in white patches of skin on different parts
psoriasis, a chronic skin disease that occurs when
of the body.
cells in the outer layer of the skin reproduce faster
than normal. The National Institutes of Health (NIH)The Nations
Medical Research Agencyincludes 27 Institutes and
Rheumatoid arthritis. A disease in which the immune
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of
system attacks the linings of the joints. This results in
Health and Human Services. It is the primary Federal
joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and destruction.
agency for conducting and supporting basic, clinical,
Scleroderma/systemic sclerosis. An autoimmune and translational medical research, and it investigates
disease characterized by abnormal growth of the causes, treatments, and cures for both common
connective tissue in the skin and blood vessels. In and rare diseases. For more information about NIH
more severe forms, connective tissue can build up in and its programs, visit www.nih.gov.
the kidneys, lungs, heart, and gastrointestinal tract,
leading in some cases to organ failure.
NIH Publication No. 167582

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