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
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)."
Another common characteristic of all autoimmune diseases is
that it is thought that an outside agent is required to start the process. Even
with a genetic tendency, a person may not develop an autoimmune disease without
an environmental influence to set it off. Examples of these are infections,
certain foods (iodine or gluten products), and toxins (some drugs, smoking,
certain hair dyes, chemicals in the workplace).
Dozens of culprits have been identified. Shomon reels off a
list of possible suspects in the more common autoimmune ailments: hair dye and
certain drugs for lupus, silica exposure for scleroderma; gluten for diabetes;
mycoplasmas for rheumatoid arthritis; measles virus for Epstein-Barr; coxsackie
virus for diabetes; smoking for thyroid, lupus, and arthritis; hepatitis B
infection for multiple sclerosis. She says physical trauma can also touch off
the immune response.
As the disease develops -- or more than one, as Rose points out
-- vague symptoms start to appear, such as joint and muscle pain (very common),
general muscle weakness, possible rashes or low-grade fever, trouble
concentrating, or weight loss. More specific signs can point toward something
being wrong: numbness and tingling in hands and feet (also common), dry eyes
(common), hair loss, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or repeated
miscarriages can also be caused by an autoimmune response.