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Understanding Autoimmune Diseases, Including Autoimmune Thyroid Conditions
What Are the Causes of Autoimmune Diseases, Including Autoimmune Thyroid Disease Like Graves' Disease and Hashimoto's Disease

Adapted by Mary Shomon



What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

The word "auto" is the Greek word for self. The immune system is a complicated network of cells and cell components (called molecules) that normally work to defend the body and eliminate infections caused by bacteria, viruses, and other invading microbes. If a person has an autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakenly attacks self, targeting the cells, tissues, and organs of a person's own body. A collection of immune system cells and molecules at a target site is broadly referred to as inflammation.

There are many different autoimmune diseases, and they can each affect the body in different ways. For example, the autoimmune reaction is directed against the brain in multiple sclerosisand the gut in Crohn's disease. In other autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus), affected tissues and organs may vary among individuals with the same disease. One person with lupus may have affected skin and joints whereas another may have affected skin, kidney, and lungs. Ultimately, damage to certain tissues by the immune system may be permanent, as with destruction of insulin-producing cells of the pancreas in Type 1 diabetes mellitus.


Who Is Affected by Autoimmune Diseases?

Many of the autoimmune diseases are rare. As a group, however, autoimmune diseases afflict millions of Americans. Most autoimmune diseases strike women more often than men; in particular, they affect women of working age and during their childbearing years.

Some autoimmune diseases occur more frequently in certain minority populations. For example, lupus is more common in African-American and Hispanic women than in Caucasian women of European ancestry. Rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma affect a higher percentage of residents in some Native American communities than in the general U.S. population. Thus, the social, economic, and health impact from autoimmune diseases is far-reaching and extends not only to family but also to employers, co-workers, and friends.

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