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Women's Health

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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Traits in Common continued...

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.

Research Continues

Although autoimmune disorders can make life miserable, they usually are chronic and not fatal, Shomon says. Most are handled by a range of doctors from internist to rheumatologist to dermatologist. "There is no such thing as an autoimmunologist," she says. Usually, it's the researchers that are seeking to attack the disorders as a common group.

According to Rose, some approaches being tried include a complete "reboot" of the immune system -- the famous bone marrow transplant. "This is only tried if other treatments have failed," he says. "The idea is that if the entire immune system is erased, it might to a better job the second time around." Doctors at Johns Hopkins use a chemotherapy drug called cyclophosphamide to "reboot" the immune system. This has showed promise in a number of lupus patients.

If the causative agent of the disease is known, a vaccine can be developed. Immunoglobulin or antibodies are being used in children with the heart disease called Kawasaki disease, as well as Guillain-Barre and multiple sclerosis.

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