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Autoimmune Diseases and RA

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

You might be surprised by some of RA's "cousins," like type 1 diabetes, Graves’ disease, and multiple sclerosis. They all have roots in the same family tree -- problems with the immune system. Or, as your doctor may say, they’re "autoimmune diseases."

These happen when your body's defense system goes into overdrive.

What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

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

  1. It keeps cells from growing out of control.
  2. It protects you from outside invaders, like viruses.

“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 runny nose.

Mistaken identity? “A similar thing happens when you have an autoimmune disease,” Ladd says. But your immune system confuses a friend for an enemy -- it doesn’t recognize your body. So it makes "antibodies" that attack your own cells, tissues, or organs.

Like allergies, but different. Autoimmune diseases share a likeness with allergies. “Both are over-responses of the immune system,” Ladd says. But they're different, too.

With allergies, the immune system responds to an outside trigger, something like mold, dust, or a certain food. With autoimmune diseases, though, the immune system overreacts to things inside your body. With RA it attacks your joints and their lining.

A family of diseases and a family disease. When you have an autoimmune disease, you can have symptoms in different parts of your body. But “they’re all caused by the immune system attacking its own tissue,” Ladd says.

So even though autoimmune diseases often run in families, you might not all have the same disease. Does your aunt have multiple sclerosis, for example? It may be linked in some way with your joint symptoms.

Being aware of your family’s medical history can help someone get diagnosed and treated earlier. You can be on the lookout for warning signs if you’re related to someone with an autoimmune disease. Or, if you have one of these disorders, like RA, you can watch out for symptoms in your family members or children.

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