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Understanding Autoimmune Diseases, Including Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions
Examples of Autoimmune Diseases Including Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, and Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases Including Hashimoto's and Graves' Disease

Adapted by Mary Shomon

What Are Some Examples of Autoimmune Diseases?

Rheumatoid Arthritis

In people with rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system predominantly targets the lining (synovium) that covers various joints. Inflammation of the synovium is usually symmetrical (occurring equally on both sides of the body) and causes pain, swelling, and stiffness of the joints. These features distinguish rheumatoid arthritis from osteoarthritis, which is a more common and degenerative "wear-and-tear" arthritis.

Currently available therapy focuses on reducing inflammation of the joints with anti-inflammatory or immunosuppresssive medications. Sometimes, the immune system may also target the lung, blood vessels, or eye; occasionally patients may also develop symptoms of other autoimmune diseases such as Sjogren's the inflammation, itching, and scaling. For more severe cases, oral medications are used. Psoriasis is common and may affect more than 2 out of 100 Americans. Psoriasis often runs in families.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a disease in which the immune system targets nerve tissues of the central nervous system. Most commonly, damage to the central nervous system occurs intermittently, allowing a person to lead a fairly normal life. At the other extreme, the symptoms may become constant, resulting in a progressive disease with possible blindness, paralysis, and premature death. Some medications such as beta interferon are helpful to people with the intermittent form of multiple sclerosis.

In young adults, multiple sclerosis is the most common disabling disease of the nervous system. Multiple sclerosis afflicts 1 in 700 people in this country. Researchers continue to search for triggers of the disease.

Immune-Mediated or Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

Type 1 diabetes mellitus results from autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas. Insulin is required by the body to keep the blood sugar (glucose) level under control. High levels of glucose are responsible for the symptoms and the complications of the disease. However, most of the insulin-producing cells are destroyed before the patient develops symptoms of diabetes. Symptoms include fatigue, frequent urination, increased thirst, and possible sudden confusion.

Type 1 diabetes mellitus is usually diagnosed before the age of 30 and may be diagnosed as early as the first month of life. Together with Type 2 diabetes (not considered an autoimmune disease), diabetes mellitus is the leading cause of kidney damage, loss of eyesight, and leg amputation. Close control of sugar levels decreases the rate at which these events occur. There is a genetic predisposition to Type 1 diabetes, which occurs in 1 out of 800 people in the United States. Among individuals who have a close relative with Type 1 diabetes, those at high risk for developing disease can be identified. Efforts are now under way to evaluate prevention strategies for these family members at risk.

Inflammatory Bowel Diseases

This medical term is used for both Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, two diseases in which the immune system attacks the gut (intestine). Patients may have diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and pain that can be difficult to control. Illness in afflicted individuals can result from intestinal inflammation and from side effects of the drugs used for the disease. For example, daily use of high-dose corticosteroid (prednisone) therapy, which is needed to control severe symptoms of Crohn's disease, can predispose patients to infections, bone thinning (osteoporosis), and fractures. For patients with ulcerative colitis, surgical removal of the lower intestine (colon) will eliminate the disease and their increased risk for colon cancer. More than 1 in 500 Americans has some type of inflammatory bowel disease.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Patients with systemic lupus erythematosus most commonly experience profound fatigue, rashes, and joint pains. In severe cases, the immune system may attack and damage several organs such as the kidney, brain, or lung. For many individuals, symptoms and damage from the disease can be controlled with available anti-inflammatory medications. However, if a patient is not closely monitored, the side effects from the medications can be quite serious. Lupus occurs in 1 out of 2,000 Americans and in as many as 1 in 250 young, African-American women.


Psoriasis is an immune system disorder that affects the skin, and occasionally the eyes, nails, and joints. Psoriasis may affect very small areas of skin or cover the entire body with a buildup of red scales called plaques. The plaques are of different sizes, shapes, and severity and may be painful as well as unattractive. Bacterial infections and pressure or trauma to the skin can aggravate psoriasis. Most treatments focus on topical skin care to relieve the inflammation, itching, and scaling. For more severe cases, oral medications are used. Psoriasis is common and may affect more than 2 out of 100 Americans. Psoriasis often runs in families.


This autoimmune disease results in thickening of the skin and blood vessels. Almost every patient with scleroderma has Raynaud's, which is a spasm of the blood vessels of the fingers and toes. Symptoms of Raynaud's include increased sensitivity of the fingers and toes to the cold, changes in skin color, pain, and occasionally ulcers of the fingertips or toes. In people with scleroderma, thickening of skin and blood vessels can result in loss of movement and shortness of breath or, more rarely, in kidney, heart, or lung failure. The estimated number of people with any type of scleroderma varies from study to study but may range from 1 to 4 affected individuals for every 10,000 Americans (or as many as 1 out of 2500 individuals).

Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases

Hashimoto's thyroiditis and Grave's disease result from immune system destruction or stimulation of thyroid tissue. Symptoms of low (hypo-) or overactive (hyper-) thyroid function are nonspecific and can develop slowly or suddenly; these include fatigue, nervousness, cold or heat intolerance, weakness, changes in hair texture or amount, and weight gain or loss. The diagnosis of thyroid disease is readily made with appropriate laboratory tests. The symptoms of hypothyroidism are controlled with replacement thyroid hormone pills; however, complications from over- or under-replacement of the hormone can occur. Conventional treatment of hyperthyroidism requires long-term anti-thyroid drug therapy or destruction of the thyroid gland with radioactive iodine or surgery. Both of these treatment approaches carry certain risks and long-term side effects. Thyroid diseases are estimated to affect as many as 10 percent of the population, and affect women seven times more often than men. They are frequently found in families where there are other autoimmune diseases.

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All information is intended for your general knowledge only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should seek prompt medical care for any specific health issues and consult your physician or health practitioner before starting a new treatment program. Please see our full disclaimer.