Autoimmune diseases are more common these days—here’s what you need to know.
The prevalence of autoimmune diseases—conditions in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own cells—has been on the rise in recent years in the United States. What used to seem relatively rare has become more common. It is unclear if this is due to factors making people more susceptible to these diseases or if the rise is due to doctors being better able to recognize and diagnose these conditions.
Autoimmune diseases are twice as likely to occur in women as in men, according to research. Examples of these diseases include systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis/psoriatic arthritis, Guillian-Barre syndrome, Grave’s disease, Addison’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Sjogren’s sydrome and myasthenia gravis, among others. Some autoimmune diseases target a specific organ, but others may affect the whole body.
It is not uncommon for people to see multiple doctors before being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. This may be due to the fact that many symptoms are vague, may appear unrelated or can be attributed to other common illnesses. In some cases, symptoms may not be taken seriously or are not considered as a symptom related to an autoimmune disease.
So what should you do if you suspect you have an autoimmune disease?
- Recognize the symptoms. Many autoimmune diseases present with similar symptoms in the early stages, although some have unique symptoms. Symptoms may include fatigue, muscle aches, joint pain, low grade fever, skin rashes, swelling and redness, hair loss, numbness/tingling in the hands and feet or trouble concentrating. Symptoms may come and go or be persistent.
- Find the right doctor. Start by seeing your primary physician although you may ultimately need to see a specialist, such as a rheumatologist or endocrinologist. He or she can listen to your symptoms, do a physical exam and order blood work to check for specific markers, such as the antinuclear antibody test (ANA). There is not one test that diagnoses all immune diseases, but a positive ANA test means you likely have some type of autoimmune disease. Symptoms and other tests can be used to confirm a diagnosis.
- Advocate for yourself. Unfortunately, the average person sees six doctors over about four years before getting an accurate diagnosis. Symptoms can be confusing or look different from one person to the next. You may also find some doctors just chalk symptoms up to stress, diet, inadequate sleep or another condition. You know your body better than anyone so arm yourself with questions and push for answers. If you feel you’re not being taken seriously, find a new doctor.
- Research treatments. Although treatments can’t cure autoimmune diseases, they can control overactive immune responses and address symptoms. Finding the right ones for you may take some trial and error but it is worth pursuing to improve your quality of life.
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Date Last Reviewed: December 15, 2021
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD