The term “autoimmune disease” encompasses more than 100 conditions, including type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and more. Although these diseases affect different organs and tissues and vary widely in terms of symptoms, severity, and treatment needs, they are all characterized by an immune system that has turned on itself, mistakenly attacking the body’s own cells. Here are several key facts to know about these complex conditions.
Autoimmune diseases are more common than it may seem
While type 1 diabetes and arthritis are relatively well known, many autoimmune diseases aren’t household names. Some, like takayasu arteritis, Susac syndrome, and Behcet’s disease, even meet the official criteria of a rare disease, as they affect fewer than 200,000 people in the US. But by no means should autoimmune disorders be considered an obscure health issue. With an estimated 50 million Americans living with one or more of them, most of us have some connection to these conditions.
Many autoimmune diseases run in families, but genetics are just one factor in their development
It’s true that many autoimmune diseases run in families, but the genetic component of these conditions is often misunderstood. In many cases, having a relative with an autoimmune disease may increase your risk of developing one, but it does not guarantee a diagnosis. Your genetic makeup is only one of several factors involved in the development of an autoimmune disease, along with environment and lifestyle.
That being said, it’s always a good idea to learn your relatives’ health histories. Since there is a genetic component to autoimmunity, information about your family’s health issues can aid your doctor in making an accurate diagnosis.
The diagnosis process can be complex
Speaking of diagnosis, it is often a complex multi-step process. This is due to the fact that many autoimmune disorders have overlapping symptoms but lack a simple, single diagnostic test. To support your provider in making a diagnosis, share a detailed list of your symptoms and how long you’ve experienced them as well as your family’s medical history.
An antinuclear antibody (ANA) blood test is a common first step in the diagnosis process. It checks for the presence of antibodies that attack healthy cells. If you have a positive result, additional tests can help your doctor make a more specific diagnosis.
A negative ANA result does not necessarily rule out a diagnosis. Your doctor may recommend additional tests for other antibodies or inflammation markers, including:
An erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test, often used to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis and lupus
A c-reactive protein (CRP) test, often used to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease
A rheumatoid factor test, often used to diagnose rheumatoid arthritis
Having an autoimmune disease doesn’t mean you have a weak immune system
Immunocompromised individuals have a weak immune system, or one that is less capable of producing antibodies and protecting against illness. Since autoimmune disorders involve the immune system, there is often a misconception that having one of these conditions means you have an increased risk for any type of infection or will respond less effectively to a vaccine.
On the contrary, the issues with immune system function in an autoimmune disease don’t necessarily mean that your body is less equipped to fight off an infection. However, certain medications used to treat some autoimmune disorders — like the immunosuppressants for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus — may slow down your immune system, resulting in an immunocompromised state.
Treatment is highly varied
Day-to-day life with an autoimmune disorder looks different for each individual. People with type 1 diabetes need insulin every day to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. In the case of many other autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, there are periods of intensified symptoms known as flare-ups and periods of mild symptoms or none at all known as remission. Ultimately, there is a wide spectrum of autoimmune diseases, and with each one, a wide spectrum of experiences.
Get the pharmacy care you deserve
Our pharmacists have specialized training in the treatment of many autoimmune diseases and are here with the support you need seven days a week. We can answer any questions you may have about medication side effects, non-pharmacological treatment options, lifestyle changes, and more. Same-day delivery and in-app medication management tools make it simple to stay on track with treatment.
Reach out through secure in-app messaging to learn more.
This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.