What is autoimmunity

An autoimmune disease is a disease that is caused by the body's immune system. Autoimmune diseases can attack any tissue and all organs, depending on the disease. Therefore, very different symptoms are possible. Because the cause of an autoimmune disease cannot be treated, it usually accompanies the sick person for a lifetime. In most cases, however, the symptoms can be alleviated with certain medication.

How common are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases affect many people and are among the most common chronic diseases in Germany. For several decades, doctors have been registering an increasing number of those affected, which is mainly due to the fact that the examination methods and thus the diagnostic options for autoimmune diseases are getting better and better.

Common autoimmune diseases

What is an autoimmune disease?

In the case of an autoimmune disease, the body's defenses attack and destroy the body's own tissue. Which tissue is attacked depends on the type of immune disease. Normally, the immune system only acts against foreign material that can be harmful to the organism, especially pathogens such as viruses, bacteria or fungi. The body's own structures recognize and tolerate the defenses against it. The distinction between “endogenous” and “foreign” is possible because every cell in the body carries certain molecules on its cell membrane, which it identifies as belonging to the body. These molecules do not have foreign structures (or they carry others) and are therefore attacked by the immune system.

In the case of an autoimmune disease, this distinction is no longer possible: the immune system mistakenly considers certain endogenous structures to be foreign and tries to destroy the supposed intruders. Depending on the autoimmune disease, different components of the immune system are involved. On the one hand, certain cells (e.g. T lymphocytes), but also special proteins, so-called antibodies. If antibodies behave autoimmune, i.e. attack their own body, they are called autoantibodies.

An autoimmune disease should not be confused with an allergy. In the case of allergies, the immune system does not behave autoimmune, but rather assess actually harmless foreign material as threatening and then react exaggeratedly to it.

What autoimmune diseases are there?

There is a multitude of autoimmune diseases, some of which present very differently. In addition to the above, this also includes rarer diseases.

Which organs are affected by autoimmune diseases?

An autoimmune reaction can be directed against a wide variety of structures in your own body and thus attack every organ. Systemic autoimmune diseases sometimes affect not just a single organ but several at the same time.

Autoimmune thyroid disease

If the misdirected immune system is directed against the thyroid gland, this leads to inflammation (thyroiditis) and - depending on the type of autoimmune disease - to an over- or underactive thyroid. The two most common autoimmune diseases of the thyroid are Graves' disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

Autoimmune skin disease

The skin is particularly affected by autoimmunity and is damaged by many autoimmune diseases. Examples are lupus erythematosus, psoriasis, dermatomyositis, lichen sclerosus or sarcoid.

Autoimmune disease of the liver

The liver can also be the target of your own immune system. In autoimmune hepatitis, immune cells and autoantibodies attack the liver cells, causing the liver to become inflamed.

Autoimmune disease of the kidney and adrenal gland

Some forms of kidney inflammation are autoimmune-mediated and the adrenal gland can also be affected by an autoimmune reaction. For example, Addison's disease, a form of underactive adrenal glands, is often triggered by one's own immune system.

Autoimmune disease of the gut

Chronic complaints of the digestive tract are often caused by autoimmune diseases. Examples are Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac disease.

Autoimmune disease of the eye

The eyes are also not exempt from damage caused by autoimmune processes. In connection with some autoimmune diseases, for example, the vascular skin of the eye can become inflamed (uveitis). In Sjogren's syndrome, the eye dries out, which often leads to corneal and conjunctivitis in those affected.

Other autoimmune diseases

In addition to the examples mentioned, an autoimmune disease can occur in various other structures and organs of the body such as the nerves, vessels, the lungs, the pancreas or the heart.

Autoimmune Disease: Symptoms

The symptoms of patients with an autoimmune disease mainly depend on which organs are attacked by the immune system. Examples of possible symptoms are:

Autoimmune Disease: Causes and Risk Factors

The exact causes for the development of an autoimmune disease are not yet known. However, medical professionals are certain that both genetic influences and environmental conditions are important. Autoimmune diseases, for example, appear in families and there are also differences in frequency between certain ethnic groups and cultures.

Environmental factors that have an influence on the development and severity of autoimmune diseases are, for example, infections, stress, pregnancy and certain medications.

Autoimmune Disease: Diagnosis

There are many different methods for diagnosing and monitoring the progress of an autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune Disease: Treatment

Many doctors and patients want to be able to cure autoimmune diseases. As long as one does not know the actual trigger, however, no causal therapy is possible. The forms of treatment available today only alleviate discomfort. These include:

Various factors that can influence an autoimmune disease also play a role in therapy. Diet, climate, stress level and other aspects should therefore be included in the treatment concepts.