Most diseases we know of are diseases that occur when germs, like bacteria and viruses, attack the body’s immune system. However, for some diseases, this is not the case. Autoimmune diseases are diseases that involve a disorder in the immune system. Relatively few people know about autoimmune diseases making them harder to spot and get treatment for.
Keep reading this article to gain a better understanding of what these diseases are, what causes them, as well as some of their symptoms, and the diagnostic procedures and treatment options available for them.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases are diseases that affect the body’s own immune system, causing it to attack the body. The immune system works to protect the body from germs like viruses, bacteria and even parasites that can cause diseases.
In some cases, the immune system can work against the body; meaning that the body attacks and causes damage to its own tissues bringing about autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. In those cases, the autoimmune disease attacks the skin and joints as they are identified as being foreign to the body.
What causes autoimmune diseases?
The exact causes of autoimmune diseases are not known, and this is why these diseases are a huge burden because diagnosing and treating them is a challenge. However, there are some risk factors that are said to increase the chance of developing such diseases. These include:
- Genetics: Some genes inherited from parents can make one vulnerable to autoimmune diseases.
- Environmental factors: Autoimmune diseases can be triggered by factors like toxins in the environment
- Lifestyle factors: Factors like smoking, poor diet and obesity can also increase the risk of developing autoimmune diseases.
- Family history: Having a family member with an autoimmune disease can increase your risk of suffering from the same condition.
- Stress and lack of enough sleep can also increase your risk of having an autoimmune disease because it lowers your immunity.
Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases
Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases
- Muscle aches
- Redness and swelling
- Numbness and tingling of the hands and feet
- Skin rashes
- Loss of hair
Some of the common autoimmune diseases are:
- Lupus: This disease can affect many organs in the body like the heart, brain, joints and kidneys.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis: It attacks the joints, causing redness, soreness and stiffness.
- Multiple Sclerosis: This disease attacks the myelin sheath which protects the coating that surrounds the nerve cells affecting the transmission of messages between the brain and the body.
- Diabetes Mellitus: A form of type 1 diabetes, it attacks and destroys the cells of the pancreas that produce insulin, stopping production of insulin. Instead of the body using up glucose from food, it circulates throughout the body continuously.
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease: This disease affects different parts of the gastrointestinal tract causing inflammation in the lining of the intestines.
Psoriasis: This condition causes the cells of the skin to multiply fast leading to a build-up of cells that causing scales or plaques on the skin.
Diagnosing Autoimmune Diseases
The diagnosis of autoimmune diseases involves a combination of tests after a careful evaluation of a patient’s medical history. Tests include:
- Blood tests which can help in determining organ function.
- Imaging tests like x-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT) scan, among other imaging tests that may be required to check internal organs.
- Biopsy: This is a procedure used to remove tissue from the body that needs to be examined.
Treatment of Autoimmune Disease
- Medications: Some of the drugs used in treating these diseases include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (MSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and immune-suppressing drugs.
Medications can be used to;
1. Treat infections,
2. Prevent infections,
3. Treat the symptoms caused by these diseases, or
4. Boost the immune system
- Stem Cell Transplant: The immune system can also be boosted by having a stem cell transplantation, especially if the patient is a child. For this procedure to be done, the immune cells need to be destroyed using chemo or radiation therapy. However, stem cell transplants may not always work.
- Clinical trials can also be used on patients and these involve using new drugs in treating such diseases to determine whether their use should be made available to other patients in the future. These may also involve new diagnostic and prevention methods of diseases.
Can Autoimmune Diseases be Prevented?
Autoimmune diseases caused by genetic defects may be difficult to prevent, but since these diseases affect the immune system, you can improve your body’s immunity by:
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): It is used to get images of the internal organs using radio waves and magnetic fields. This test shows clearer images than the CT scan.
- Computed Tomography (CT): This test uses rotating x- ray beams to take images of the body.
- Ultrasound: This test uses sound waves to make pictures of the internal organs. It can be combined with laparoscopy and endoscopy.
- Biopsy: This involves taking a tissue sample from the tumour and examining it in a laboratory to check whether there is any presence of abnormal cells.
- Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP): It is done to show whether the bile duct is narrowed or blocked. A small tube is inserted into the bile duct through the oesophagus and used to insert a contrast dye which makes the images in the x- ray to outline the bile duct.
Before starting a treatment, it is important to consider factors such as whether you wish to have children, your age, and your overall health. Here are some of the gall bladder and bile duct cancer treatment options:
- Avoiding exposure to germs that can cause infections by staying away from crowds and people who have infections like colds.
- Getting vaccinated to prevent diseases that are preventable through vaccinations.
- Managing stress by practising relaxation techniques like yoga, meditating, exercising or taking time to do hobbies.
- Eating healthy foods; more vegetables and fruits, whole grains and lean proteins.
- Keeping your body active by doing regular exercises.
- Getting enough sleep by creating a sleep schedule and following the schedule.