Autoimmune diseases overview

Autoimmune diseases are conditions in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body.

Key points about autoimmune diseases

  1. In autoimmune diseases, your immune system produces antibodies to attack your own healthy body cells, instead of attacking bacteria or viruses. This causes damage to your body's organs.
  2. People who get autoimmune diseases seem to have a genetic predisposition, which means you have a higher chance of getting the disease if other members of your family have it.
  3. Autoimmune disease can affect any parts of your body, so symptoms depend on the parts of your body that are affected. 
  4. Autoimmune disease can't be cured. However, there are treatments available to manage your symptoms and slow down the disease progression by suppressing your immune system.

What are autoimmune diseases?

A normal immune system helps to fight off infections by killing foreign bacteria or viruses that get into your body. 

In autoimmune diseases, your immune system produces antibodies to attack your own healthy body cells, instead of attacking bacteria or viruses, causing damage to your body organs. There are different types of autoimmune diseases that affect different parts of your body, including:

What are the causes of autoimmune diseases?

It's not clear why some people get autoimmune diseases. However, in many cases, those who get autoimmune diseases seem to have a genetic predisposition, which means you have a higher chance of getting the disease if other members of your family also have it.

You also have a greater chance of having a different autoimmune disease if a relative has one, eg, one sibling has type 1 diabetes and another has coeliac disease. You can also have more than one autoimmune condition. 

If you have the genes, at some stage environmental factors may then trigger the symptoms.

These factors include:

  • an infection
  • stress
  • medicines
  • diet
  • UV radiation.

What are the common symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases can affect your eyes, heart, joints, thyroid gland, nerves, pancreas, kidneys, skin, intestines and more. Symptoms depend on the parts of your body that are affected by the disease. For example, if you have coeliac disease, it damages your small intestines and you may have gut symptoms such as diarrhoea (runny poos) or tummy pain. 

As well as symptoms that are specific to the autoimmune condition, you may also have general symptoms, such as:

  • tiredness or fatigue
  • loss of appetite
  • loss of weight
  • feeling something is not quite right. 

If you experience any of these general symptoms, it's a good idea to see your GP. 

How are autoimmune diseases diagnosed?

Your GP or doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and examine you. Depending on what your doctor thinks is causing your symptoms, they may also order tests to find out the cause. Then your GP will refer you to the appropriate specialist, eg if you have coeliac disease, you will see a gastroenterologist or if you have rheumatoid arthritis you will see a rheumatologist.

How are autoimmune diseases treated?

Autoimmune disease can't be cured. However, there are treatments available to manage your symptoms and slow down your disease progression by suppressing your immune system. These may be in the form of tablets or injections. 

Treatment will depend on the condition you have. However, generally, lifestyle changes can also help, such as:

  • having a healthy diet and a healthy weight
  • getting enough rest and sleep
  • doing exercises that suit you
  • reducing stress and getting enough support. 

Talk to your doctor to find out the best treatment options for you. 

What support is available for autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune NZ provides support and resources for those who are affected by autoimmune diseases. Email info@autoimmune.org.nz or phone 021 244 4544. 

Learn more

The following links provide further information about autoimmune diseases. Be aware that websites from other countries may have information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.   

Overview of autoimmune diseases Health Direct, Australia 
Autoimmune diseases Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Australia 
Autoimmune diseases National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, US
Autoimmunity Oxford University Hospitals, NHS, UK 

References

  1. Overview of autoimmune diseases Health Direct, Australia 
  2. Autoimmune diseases Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, Australia 

Reviewed by

Dr Helen Kenealy is a geriatrician and general physician working at Counties Manukau DHB. She has a broad range of interests and has worked in a variety of settings including inpatient rehabilitation, orthgeriatrics and community geriatrics.
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Helen Kenealy, geriatrician and general physician, Counties Manukau DHB Last reviewed: 27 Oct 2020