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Autoimmune Diseases and RA

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by David Zelman, MD

It might not seem that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has anything in common with type 1 diabetes or multiple sclerosis. But it does -- they’re all autoimmune diseases. So what does that mean?

These conditions happen when your body attacks itself.

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?

You may be more likely than the average person to get an autoimmune disorder. While another person might get an infection and get better, the same infection might trigger the inflammation inside your body that leads to the disease, Peyman says.

For example, researchers are studying super-tiny living things called microbes in your gut, mouth, and on your skin. They may work more closely with the immune system than people thought, Ladd says. If they're out of balance, it may trigger your immune system and make more inflammation.

Other possible triggers include pesticides and smoking, she says. Hormones also probably play a role, since autoimmune diseases are much more common in women than in men.

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