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Life With an Autoimmune Disease

If you have general, lingering symptoms, you may be suffering from an autoimmune disease -- which means your immune system is attacking healthy tissue.
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Your first symptoms of an autoimmune disease may be general, such as fatigue, low-grade fever, and difficulty concentrating, making autoimmune diseases difficult to diagnose at first. You also may feel depressed and consult a doctor for that.

According to Mary J. Shomon, author of the book Living Well With Autoimmune Disease: What Your Doctor Doesn't Tell You ... That You Need to Know, what ensues after registering these complaints may be an odyssey to pinpoint which of the almost 60 different autoimmune disorders you might have, all of which affect the body differently.

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About 50 million Americans -- the vast majority of them women, especially women of working and childbearing age -- suffer from autoimmune ailments. Rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, psoriasis, alopecia, lupus, thyroid disease, Addison's disease, pernicious anemia, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, myasthenia gravis, Guillain-Barre syndrome -- these are just a few of the ailments that scientists now think stem from a common phenomenon: the activation of the body's immune system against the body itself. Also suspected of having this as a component are chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Traits in Common

That such different-seeming diseases as psoriasis and diabetes could stem from a common cause actually is a relatively new notion, according to Noel R. Rose, MD, PhD, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Back in the early days of the last century, he says, the idea took hold that if the immune system were to benefit us, it would have to be warding off foreign invaders from outside the body.

Now, scientists know that the immune system is a set of actions and reactions that can be triggered by a number of things besides an invading germ, virus, or bacteria. One thing that puts you at risk for being attacked by your own immune system is your genetics, says Rose. In other words, if your parents have a predisposition to autoimmune disease, you may, too. "And it's an overlapping inheritance," Rose says. "If you have one autoimmune disease, you may have more -- and you may have different ones than your parent did (or your siblings do)."

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