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Why Does My Doctor Call RA an Autoimmune Disease?

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

When your doctor tells you that you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), he may also say it's an autoimmune disease. You might not think it has anything in common with conditions like type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis. But it does. They all result when something misfires in your immune system. Instead of attacking threats, it goes after you.


What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

Normally, your immune system acts like a loyal bodyguard with two main jobs:

  1. It helps find cancer cells and get rid of them.
  2. It protects you from outside invaders, like viruses or bacteria.

“When you have an infection like a cold or the flu, for example, the immune system launches a battle,” says Virginia T. Ladd, president and executive director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA). This causes inflammation inside the body, and symptoms like watery eyes and a runny nose. It fights the germs to get rid of them. That’s a great thing.

When you have an autoimmune disease a similar thing happens. But the results aren’t so good. Something causes your immune system to mistake your own cells, tissues, or organs as the bad guys. So it fights them. With RA it attacks your joints and their lining, called synovium.

What Triggers Autoimmune Diseases?

That's still not clear. But researchers are making progress.

As with other life-long conditions like heart disease, it’s probably not just one thing that causes these disorders. Many things work together to raise your risk, like your genes, environment, and lifestyle choices, says John A. Peyman, PhD, program officer in the autoimmunity branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

For starters, it seems that you can be more likely to get an autoimmune disease if other members of your family have one. Your parents can pass down genes that make it more likely.

One gene has been linked with most autoimmune diseases, Peyman says. It’s called human leukocyte antigen (HLA).

“200 other genes contribute a tiny bit to the chance of getting RA,” he says.

So what happens if you inherit one of the genes?

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