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Autoimmune Disease

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is an autoimmune disease?

An autoimmune disease causes your body's immune system to attack healthy cells in your body by mistake. Antibodies are created by your body to destroy foreign substances that can be harmful to you. An autoimmune disease causes the antibodies to attack healthy cells instead of foreign substances. This causes inflammation in the affected areas. The disease may affect any part of your body, including skin, organs, blood, your digestive system, and connective tissues. There are many autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, celiac disease, and diabetes.

What increases my risk for an autoimmune disease?

  • A family history of an autoimmune disease
  • Female gender
  • Pregnancy
  • Exposure to sunlight or certain chemicals
  • Certain medicines, such as some antibiotics and cholesterol medicines
  • A viral or bacterial infection

What are the signs and symptoms of an autoimmune disease?

Signs and symptoms depend on the type of autoimmune disease and the body systems affected. Symptoms may be mild or severe, and may come and go. You may have many of the following if you have an autoimmune disease that affects more than one body system:

  • Red, warm, painful, swollen area or joints
  • Joint pain, stiffness, or reduced range of motion
  • Tiredness, weakness, or muscle pain
  • Fever
  • Weight gain or loss, or no appetite
  • Diarrhea, stomach cramps, or bloating
  • Hair loss
  • Rash or changes in skin color
  • Red, inflamed eyes

How is an autoimmune disease diagnosed?

  • Blood tests are used to measure the amount of inflammation in your body or to find specific antibodies. The tests may also show signs of infection.
  • An x-ray, CT, or MRI may be used to check your joints or organs for damage. An x-ray may also be used to check your heart or other organs that may be affected. Do not enter the MRI room with any metal. Metal can cause serious damage. Tell the healthcare provider if you have any metal in or on your body.
  • A biopsy is a procedure used to take a sample of joint fluid or tissues. The sample may be tested for infection, inflammation, or other causes of your symptoms.

How is an autoimmune disease treated?

  • Medicines may be given to replace thyroid hormones, insulin, or other hormones your body is not producing. You may also be given medicine to reduce your immune system's ability to attack healthy cells or to decrease inflammation in muscles or joints. You may need to use topical creams or lotions to control a rash or other symptoms that affect your skin.
  • Prescription pain medicine may be given. Ask your healthcare provider how to take this medicine safely.
  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen reduces pain and fever. This medicine is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Steroids help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
  • A blood transfusion may be needed if your blood is affected.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

What can I do to manage my autoimmune disease?

  • Rest as needed. Talk to your healthcare provider if you are having trouble sleeping because of pain or other symptoms. Rest your joints if they are stiff or painful. Your healthcare provider may suggest support devices such as crutches or splints to help your joints rest.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish, and low-fat dairy products. Work with your healthcare provider or dietitian to create healthy meal plans. You may need to stop eating certain foods if your digestive system is affected by your autoimmune disease.
    Healthy Foods
  • Go to physical or occupational therapy as directed. A physical therapist can help you create an exercise plan. Exercise may help increase your energy. Exercise can also help keep stiff joints flexible and increase range of motion. An occupational therapist can help you learn to do your daily activities when you have pain or swelling during a flare.
  • Do not smoke. Nicotine can damage blood vessels and make it more difficult to manage your symptoms. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your healthcare provider before you use these products.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about pregnancy. If you are a woman and want to get pregnant, talk to your healthcare provider. You or your baby might be at risk for complications. You may need to wait until your disease is controlled or your medications are finished before you get pregnant. You may also have trouble getting pregnant because of your disease. Your healthcare provider may be able to suggest ways to improve your ability to become pregnant.
  • Manage stress. Stress may slow healing and lead to illness. Learn ways to control stress, such as relaxation, deep breathing, or listening to music.

What can I do to manage symptoms during a flare?

A flare means something triggered your symptoms. Stress, cold weather, and sunlight are examples of triggers. Your healthcare provider can help you create a management plan that includes what to do if you have a flare. Treat flares quickly to help prevent serious illness.

  • Apply ice or heat as directed. Ice helps reduce pain and swelling, and may help prevent tissue damage. Use a cold compress, or put crushed ice in a bag. Cover it with a towel and apply to the painful area for 15 to 20 minutes every hour, or as directed. Heat helps reduce pain and muscle spasms. Apply a warm compress to the area for 20 minutes every 2 hours, or as directed.
  • Elevate the area above the level of your heart. Elevation can help reduce swelling and pain, especially in your joints. Elevate the area as often as possible.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You have severe pain or swelling.
  • You have a fever along with stiffness and pain.
  • You have blood in your urine, bowel movement, or vomit.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You are confused or feel dizzy or faint.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have new symptoms.
  • You are urinating less than usual.
  • You are bleeding from your nose or gums.
  • You bruise easily.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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