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Autoimmune Diseases

What are autoimmune diseases?

Our bodies have an immune system, which is a complex network of special cells and organs that defends the body from germs and other foreign invaders. At the core of the immune system is the ability to tell the difference between self and nonself: what’s you and what’s foreign. A flaw can make the body unable to tell the difference between self and nonself. When this happens, the body makes autoantibodies (AW-toh-AN-teye-bah-deez) that attack normal cells by mistake. At the same time special cells called regulatory T cells fail to do their job of keeping the immune system in line. The result is a misguided attack on your own body. This causes the damage we know as autoimmune disease. The body parts that are affected depend on the type of autoimmune disease. There are more than 80 known types.

How common are autoimmune diseases?

Overall, autoimmune diseases are common, affecting more than 23.5 million Americans. They are a leading cause of death and disability. Yet some autoimmune diseases are rare, while others, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, affect many people.

 Who gets autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases can affect any­one. Yet certain people are at greater risk, including:

  • Women of childbearing age— More women than men have autoimmune diseases, which often start during their childbearing years.
  • People with a family history — Some autoimmune diseases run in families, such as lupus and multiple sclerosis. It is also common for dif­ferent types of autoimmune dis­eases to affect different members of a single family. Inheriting certain genes can make it more likely to get an autoimmune disease. But a com­bination of genes and other factors may trigger the disease to start.
  • People who are around certain things in the environment — Certain events or environmental exposures may cause some autoim­mune diseases, or make them worse. Sunlight, chemicals called solvents, and viral and bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
  • People of certain races or ethnic backgrounds — Some autoimmune diseases are more common or more severely affect certain groups of people more than others. For instance, type 1 diabetes is more common in white people. Lupus is most severe for African-American and Hispanic people.

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