An autoimmune disease has many faces. But it is not external enemies such as viruses, bacteria, benign or malignant growths that are at work, but the body’s own defenses.
What is an autoimmune disease?
An autoimmune disease is a disease in which the body’s own defense system attacks its own structures such as cells and tissues. Autoimmune disease is a collective term for around 60 autoimmune diseases such as B. Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, rheumatism, Wegener’s disease, etc. They are differentiated according to the following criteria:
Organ-specific immune diseases:
Excessive reactions of the immune system attack specific organs and destroy their tissues. This form is the most common.
Systemic autoimmune diseases:
This form is not limited to specific organs, but affects inflammatory diseases in the body, such as: B. Rheumatism. 5 – 10% of those affected are systemically ill.
Intermediate autoimmune diseases:
These diseases can be a hybrid between the first two or a transition from one to the next.
In addition to a hereditary predisposition, environmental factors usually play a role. It has been found that autoimmune diseases are increasing rapidly. For one thing, there are poisons. Rheumatoid arthritis affects smokers and people who are exposed to mineral oil and silicone dust in the workplace more often. With a genetic disposition, the risk of the disease increases by about 16 times. The plasticizers in cosmetics are considered to be the cause of skin diseases such as lupus erythematosus.
Our diet favors inflammatory bowel diseases such as celiac disease. One cause is suspected to be an early baby meal with cereal porridge. Many sufferers report that stress promotes or triggers flare-ups.
One of the more recent theses is that the immune system is “bored” because it no longer has to deal adequately with external enemies due to vaccinations, medication and hygiene and is therefore looking for new, endogenous targets.
Typical & common autoimmune diseases
- Inflammation of the stomach lining
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Sjogren’s Syndrome
- ankylosing spondylitis
- Vitiligo (white spot disease)
- Diabetes mellitus with type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease (chronic bowel inflammation)
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
Symptoms, ailments & signs
An autoimmune disease can have a number of symptoms, depending on its type. Most forms initially cause harmless symptoms, such as itching, rashes, and tiredness. A loss of libido and a tingling sensation in the hands and feet are also typical.
Psoriasis manifests itself as reddened skin, itching and dandruff. An inflammation of the stomach lining leads to stomach pain, loss of appetite, nausea, belching and flatulence, among other things. Ankylosing spondylitis manifests itself as inflammatory back pain and morning stiffness, while autoimmune diseases of the joints can be associated with swelling, warm extremities, and joint pain.
Autoimmune diseases of the eyes, such as bulbar neuritis, cause visual disturbances up to and including blindness. Illnesses caused by the immune system can manifest themselves through a variety of symptoms and complaints, depending on the disease and at what stage it is. For this reason, most autoimmune diseases cannot be identified by individual symptoms.
A diagnosis is usually only possible after determining the cause and performing various physical examinations. Psoriasis, arthritis, inflammation of the gastric mucosa and diabetes mellitus can, however, be diagnosed on the basis of the clear symptoms without extensive examinations.
Diagnosis & course
Those affected initially report diffuse symptoms that are easily misunderstood by doctors or are only recognized late in connection with the autoimmune disease. Symptoms as harmless as itching, rashes, leaden tiredness, tingling in the hands and feet, loss of libido, etc.
Even the correct diagnosis is no guarantee of the correct treatment. Experts emphasize the importance of early treatment for certain diseases. Joint rheumatism can z. B. can be brought to a standstill if treated in good time. Most autoimmune diseases come off in flare-ups. Shorter or longer periods of time can elapse between these. Nobody can predict that.
The diagnosis is usually made by determining the blood values. The first indications of an autoimmune disease can be seen here, e. B. increased blood values. A screening test can reveal antibodies.
A variety of complications can arise in the course of an autoimmune disease and during treatment. Allergies can lead to chronic rashes and other secondary diseases, while the risks of severe autoimmune diseases can range from gastrointestinal complaints (Crohn’s disease) to muscle paralysis and permanent sensory disorders (multiple sclerosis). The complications almost always increase as the underlying disease progresses.
Other secondary symptoms often develop, but these can be treated effectively with the onset of therapy. Further complications always depend on the type of autoimmune disease. For example, rheumatic fever can lead to various heart diseases such as heart failure and atrial fibrillation, while an allergy can proceed without any symptoms. In the case of an overactive or underactive thyroid, the risks are based on typical symptoms such as changed blood pressure or weight loss.
In Graves’ disease and Crohn’s disease, joint inflammation and other inflammatory processes can lead to paralysis, secondary diseases and other complications. Due to the diversity of diseases and symptoms, only a doctor can answer the exact complications to be expected in an autoimmune disease.
Treatment & Therapy
To date, there has been no method of treatment that can bring an imbalanced immune system back on track, especially given the fact that there are no specific causes for the autoimmune disease.
This is why there is no causal treatment, as is the case with other diseases, but rather the therapy is based on the symptoms. Anti-inflammatory or immune-boosting drugs are given. It makes sense to have a specialist involved in the treatment, e. B. a dermatologist, internist, neurologist or the like.
The goal of treatment is to dampen the excessive reaction of the immune system without turning it off completely. Cortisone is considered one of the most important preparations, but leads to numerous side effects and interactions with long-term medication, so that researchers are striving to develop more specific drugs.
A new form of therapy, especially for systemic autoimmune diseases, is stem cell transplantation. This should enable the body to “restart”, dampen the overreaction and protect the affected organs.
Outlook & forecast
The prognosis for an autoimmune disease can vary widely and depends, among other things, on which organs are affected and whether the disease is systematic and progressive. There is no causal cure for an autoimmune disease in any case.
The prognosis depends on the time of diagnosis and the exact type of autoimmune disease. It is particularly beneficial if the diagnosis is made early and the affected area has to be stabilized with medication or its function has to be replaced. This applies to the pancreas, for example. It can be removed if it fails completely, and its function is balanced by the administration of medication.
Many of those affected have a normal life expectancy and can live without major restrictions. You only have a weakened immune system due to the medication. The prognosis is generally less favorable if the nerves or vital organs are affected.
The therapy of an autoimmune disease also allows different prognoses. Cortisone as the drug of choice carries the risk of causing Cushing’s syndrome with continued treatment. Other immunosuppressants also have different risks, but the cost-benefit must be weighed up on an individual basis.
One approach to healing consists in destroying the immune system and then performing a stem cell transplant. However, this procedure is associated with considerable risks (high mortality rate, susceptibility to infections, defense reactions, etc.) and should therefore be viewed as a last resort.
In classic diseases, the goal is to strengthen a weakened immune system so that it can successfully take up the defense. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system is not weakened, but is directed against the own body. As the exact cause is not known, targeted prevention is difficult. But a balanced diet, sufficient exercise and a stress-reduced life can have a positive effect and strengthen the general well-being.
Autoimmune disease accompanies most people for life. A causal cure is not possible. Science is not yet advanced enough for that. Therefore, follow-up care cannot aim to prevent recurrence. Long-term treatment awaits a patient. After a diagnosis, the aim is to prevent complications and make everyday life easier for the patient.
Sick people have to be prepared for regular routine examinations. Above all, they serve to document the progress of the disease and to adapt the therapy. Specialists support the treatment depending on the type of symptoms. Blood tests are common. Based on the values determined, doctors can determine at an early stage which parts of the body are at risk.
Patients take a medication tailored to them. This reduces the typical and specific symptoms of your autoimmune disease. In severe cases, follow-up care also aims to involve relatives. This is intended to distribute the stresses of everyday life over as many shoulders as possible.
The professional situation must also be discussed. So far, no general preventive measures are known that can minimize the effects of the autoimmune disease. In general, however, adequate exercise, a healthy diet and a stable environment can make life easier for those affected.
You can do that yourself
An autoimmune disease is associated with a variety of processes. In times of relapses, everyday life is often difficult for those affected. The normal everyday tasks are more difficult or impossible to complete. It is important for the patients that they can live in a stable and understanding environment. Difficulties often arise in connection with the pursuit of work. The open discussion in advance is helpful depending on the industry and employer – this way various failures or problems can be minimized.
A balanced amount of physical activity and sufficient recovery phases are important for the organism and the body’s metabolism. An endurance sport such as swimming is recommended. The joint and muscle pains that regularly occur as autoimmune accompanying symptoms can become much more bearable in the water or disappear completely, so that the movement is more fun. Ultimately, it is an individual matter to find the right sport. Sports like Modern Arnis should also be considered.
In addition, the intake of food supplements and homeopathy is particularly helpful in autoimmune processes. Which means come into question depends mainly on the respective autoimmune disease. Those affected can seek advice from a doctor or pharmacy.