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Fact Sheet: Autoimmune Diseases

What’s the Issue?

Your body stays healthy through the immune system, which fights off infections, viruses and bacteria that make you sick. If you have an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system isn’t just fighting off foreign bacteria it’s fighting your own body too.

Type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus are examples of some of the many different autoimmune diseases. They all affect the body in different ways. These diseases are not contagious, so you can't “catch” or "give" one to someone. If your family has a history of autoimmune diseases, you may be more likely to develop one.

Why Should I Care?

Women are more likely than men to develop most autoimmune diseases, but scientists aren’t sure why. Some diseases, like psoriasis (NIAMS) and type 1 diabetes (ADA), affect men and women equally, while others such as multiple sclerosis affect women twice as much as men (NINDS) and 90% of lupus patients are women (NWHIC). Some autoimmune diseases also disproportionately affect certain minorities.

Most autoimmune diseases do not have a cure, however scientists are working on new treatments and therapies on their way to a cure.

NIH estimates that more than 23.3 million Americans have an autoimmune disease, although this statistic is commonly considered to be a low estimate (AARDA). Chances are that you know someone with autoimmune disease, or at least someone who has been affected by one.

What Can I Do?

Many people with autoimmune diseases can live normal lives when they receive the right medical care. Autoimmune diseases are treated through healthy living and proper medical care, which reduces the frequency and severity of symptoms.

People can have an autoimmune disease for a long time before they have any signs or symptoms. If you believe you have the symptoms of an autoimmune disease, talk to your relatives to see if you have a family history of any of the diseases mentioned. You should also talk to your doctor or nurse about these issues. Some autoimmune diseases have simple tests that can assist in diagnosis, while others require a combination of symptoms and test results for a complete diagnosis.

If you already know that you have an autoimmune disease, it is important that you see your doctor regularly. Some autoimmune diseases require several doctors to keep the illness under control. Once you’ve been diagnosed, talk to your doctor about what steps you’ll need to take to stay healthy. Autoimmune diseases can take a toll on the whole family, so help educate your family about your illness so they know what to expect. Fortunately, most autoimmune diseases are NOT fatal.

More Resources

Last Update: November 2010

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