Photo: euthman (flickr)
Did you know your immune system can be your worst enemy?
In healthy individuals our immune systems are what protect us from infection and diseases. Unfortunately, when someone develops an autoimmune disease, their immune system starts to attack the organs and tissues in their own body.
Currently, scientists have identified more than eighty chronic, and often disabling autoimmune diseases. Some target a single organ or tissue type, and others damage many different organs or tissues. For example, the immune system attacks the nervous system in patients with multiple sclerosis, the thyroid gland in Graves’ disease, the pancreas in type 1 diabetes, and the joints or skin in rheumatoid arthritis.
In a disease called lupus, the immune system might attack multiple parts of the body, including skin, kidneys, joints, heart, brain, or other tissues.
Collectively autoimmune diseases affect between fifteen and twenty-five million people in the U.S. alone. Unfortunately, their prevalence is increasing each year.
Autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect young and middle-aged women. The causes are still unknown, though there is often an inherited predisposition to develop them. Scientists are working to identify the genes or environmental influences that trigger autoimmune disorders.
Cures are not yet available for many of these diseases, but as scientists learn more about them, treatment options increase, and become more effective.