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Autoimmune disorders

Definition of Autoimmune disorders

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 sclerosis and 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.


Description of Autoimmune disorders

Autoimmunity is accepted as the cause of a wide range of disorders, and it is suspected to be responsible for many more. Autoimmune diseases are classified as either general, in which the autoimmune reaction takes place simultaneously in a number of tissues, or organ specific, in which the autoimmune reaction targets a single organ.

Autoimmune disorders include the following:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus. A general autoimmune disease in which antibodies attack a number of different tissues. The disease recurs periodically and is seen mainly in young and middle-aged women.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys the tissues that line bone joints and cartilage. The disease occurs throughout the body, although some joints may be more affected than others.
  • Goodpasture's syndrome. Occurs when antibodies are deposited in the membranes of both the lung and kidneys, causing both inflammation of kidney glomerulus (glomerulonephritis) and lung bleeding. It is typically a disease of young males.
  • Grave's disease. Caused by an antibody that binds to specific cells in the thyroid gland, causing them to make excessive amounts of thyroid hormone.
  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Caused by an antibody that binds to cells in the thyroid gland. Unlike in Grave's disease, however, this antibody's action results in less thyroid hormone being made.
  • Pemphigus vulgaris. A group of autoimmune disorders that affect the skin.
  • Myasthenia gravis. A condition in which the immune system attacks a receptor on the surface of muscle cells, preventing the muscle from receiving nerve impulses and resulting in severe muscle weakness.
  • Scleroderma. Also called CREST syndrome or progressive systemic sclerosis, scleroderma affects the connective tissue.
  • Autoimmune hemolytic anemia. Occurs when the body produces antibodies that coat red blood cells.
  • Autoimmune thrombocytopenic purpura. Disorder in which the immune system targets and destroys blood platelets.
  • Polymyositis and Dermatomyositis. Immune disorders that affect the neuromuscular system.
  • Pernicious anemia. Disorder in which the immune system attacks the lining of the stomach in such a way that the body cannot metabolize vitamin B12.
  • Sjögren's syndrome. Occurs when the exocrine glands are attacked by the immune system, resulting in excessive dryness.
  • Ankylosing spondylitis. Immune-system induced degeneration of the joints and soft tissue of the spine.
  • Vasculitis. A group of autoimmune disorders in which the immune system attacks and destroys blood vessels.
  • Type I diabetes mellitus. May be caused by an antibody that attacks and destroys the islet cells of the pancreas, which produce insulin

Modified 3-14-04
Information compiled from the National Institutes of Health

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