What is an Autoimmune Condition and Why Early Detection Matters
Reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Bonnet, MD, MPH
Living with an autoimmune condition can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life. Thankfully, autoimmune conditions remain relatively rare. In the general population, the overall prevalence of autoimmunity is approximately 3-5%.
However, the prevalence and incidence can vary among the different autoimmune conditions. There are over 80 types of autoimmune conditions that can affect a wide range of body parts and cause a diversity of possible symptoms.
In this article, we explain what an autoimmune condition is and some of the most common types of autoimmune conditions in the United States. We also cover how to get tested for an autoimmune condition and why preventive screening is key to management and treatment.
What is an autoimmune disease?
The immune system plays a vital role in your overall well-being. Among its many functions, the immune system works to fight disease-causing germs, neutralize harmful substances from the environment, and fight disease-causing changes in the body, including cancer cells.
But in some cases, the immune system attacks its own healthy cells thinking that they’re foreign cells, also known as an autoimmune disease.
Symptoms of autoimmune disease can vary from person to person depending on a wide array of factors. However, some diseases do share similar symptoms. Common symptoms of autoimmune disease include:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Skin problems
- Hair loss
- Abdominal pain or digestive problems
- Recurring fever
- Swollen glands
Keep in mind, this is not an exhaustive list of autoimmune disease symptoms. Some people with an autoimmune condition may experience just one or none of the symptoms listed above.
What causes an autoimmune condition?
Unfortunately, experts don’t fully understand what causes autoimmune disease.
However, there are several factors that can increase the risk of developing an autoimmune disorder, including:
- Genetics: Certain autoimmune diseases can run in families. But even in those cases, having a family member with an autoimmune disease does not mean that you will develop the same condition. At most, it may increase your risk.
- Gender: Though not fully understood by researchers, autoimmune diseases are more prevalent in women, with the exception of Crohn’s disease.
- Smoking: Smoking has been associated with a higher risk of some autoimmune conditions including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), hyperthyroidism, and multiple sclerosis (MS).
- Weight: Being a higher weight can put extra stress on the joints and encourage inflammation experienced with RA and psoriatic arthritis.
- Medications: Though rare, certain blood pressure medications or antibiotics can cause drug-induced lupus.
What are some common autoimmune conditions?
Since the first autoimmune disease was recognized clinically just 50 years ago, there are now more than 80 known autoimmune conditions.
Here are some of the most common autoimmune diseases:
- Multiple sclerosis (MS): MS is the most common non-traumatic disabling disease to affect young adults and is increasing in prevalence worldwide. Disease onset typically occurs between ages 20-40 and is more common in women.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus (T1DM): T1DM is a chronic disease marked by insulin deficiency. The insulin deficiency occurs because the body attacks its own insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Disease onset typically occurs between ages 6-13, though symptoms can appear later in life.
- Crohn’s disease: This type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) typically occurs between ages 15-30, though symptoms can also peak between ages 60-80. Unlike other autoimmune diseases, Crohn’s is more common in men than women.
- Ulcerative colitis (UC): UC is another type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Like Crohn’s, disease onset typically occurs between ages 15-30 and symptoms can also peak between ages 60-80, though it is more common than Crohn’s worldwide.
- Lupus: Lupus, also called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a multisystem autoimmune disease marked by disease flares interspersed with periods of remission.
- Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA): RA is an autoimmune disorder of the joints. Disease onset typically occurs between ages 45-55, though some people can experience symptoms earlier in life.
- Celiac Disease (CD): CD is one of the most common autoimmune disorders (except in areas with culturally low gluten consumption, like Japan and sub-Saharan Africa) with a prevalence of 0.5-1.7%. Studies show that most cases of CD continue to remain undetected.
- Hashimoto thyroiditis: Also known as Hashimoto’s disease, chronic autoimmune thyroiditis, and chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis, is an autoimmune disease in which thyroid cells are destroyed by the immune system. Hashimoto’s is the most common cause of hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) in the US.
How can I get tested?
Testing for an autoimmune disease will vary depending on the symptoms present and for which diseases or diseases your provider recommends screening.
Initially, your provider may order basic laboratory testing, as well as:
- Disease specific markers (i.e. Rheumatoid Factor)
- Genetic tests
- Measurements of functional antibodies (i.e. thyroid peroxidase (TPO) antibodies)
- Quantitative immunoglobulin measurements (i.e. IgG, IgM, IgA)
They may also order imaging or provide a referral to a specialist if necessary.
If you’re interested in any specific autoimmune testing, reach out to your primary care provider or Forfend practitioner for guidance.
Can I decrease my risk for developing an autoimmune condition?
Unfortunately, not all autoimmune diseases are preventable. However, several non-randomized small scale studies have suggested that some autoimmune diseases may be preventable if treated prior to manifestations of symptoms. In those cases, identifying the disease early on is key in preventing symptom development.
Regardless, early detection is crucial to finding the right treatment and lifestyle management plan for you and your symptoms.
The bottom line
When living with an autoimmune disease, finding the right treatment plan can help you to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life. While there are often medications that can help manage these conditions, lifestyle medicine can be highly effective in managing many of these conditions.
Speaking with a provider can help to assess your risk and get you started with the right labs and testing.
If you’re unsure about where to start, Forfend can help. Our whole person wellness exams can help you optimize your approach to whole body wellness and health.