The 10 most common autoimmune diseases - medical - 2023



The immune system is an almost perfect machine that protects us from the attack of pathogens, making us resistant to many diseases. And we say "almost" because, like any other system in the human body, it can fail.

Due to genetic errors, it is possible that the cells of the immune system, which must recognize pathogens and attack them, are badly "programmed" and believe that the cells of our own body are a threat that must be eradicated.

At the moment in which our immune system attacks its own cells, many diseases can appear, which are known as autoimmune, since their origin does not come from outside (neither infections, nor injuries, nor substance use, nor exposure to carcinogens ...), but from our own body.

In today's article we will talk about some of the most common autoimmune diseases, detailing their symptoms and available treatments, keeping in mind that the causes are always genetic.

What is an autoimmune disease?

An autoimmune disease is any disorder that appears due to a genetic error in the genes that code for the structures of the immune system, causing the immune cells to attack healthy cells of the body by mistake.

  • We recommend you read: "The 8 types of cells of the immune system (and their functions)"

These autoimmune diseases can affect many different parts of the body depending on how the immune system is dysregulated, with severity ranging from mild to life threatening.

More than 80 different autoimmune diseases are known, which have different symptoms, although there is one common to all: inflammation of the affected areas. This leads to redness, pain, swelling and an increase in temperature in the areas of the body that are being attacked by the immune system itself.

There is no cause. Mere genetic chance is what will determine whether a person suffers from an autoimmune disease or not, since its appearance depends on the appearance of genetic errors during embryonic development. Some, in addition, tend to be hereditary, that is, they pass from parents to children.

What are the most common autoimmune diseases?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), autoimmune diseases affect between 3% and 7% of the world population, so, although many of them are rare diseases, the sum of all they make autoimmune disorders have a high incidence in the world.

Then we will see which are the most frequent diseases in which the immune system "signals" as a threat to cells of our own body.

1. Celiac disease

Celiac disease is a disease characterized by a sensitivity reaction on the part of the immune system to the consumption of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and oats.

Due to a genetic error, the immune system, when it detects that gluten has been consumed, begins to damage the intestinal villi, which are necessary to absorb nutrients. Because of this damage, people with celiac disease have health problems if they consume gluten.

The most common symptoms after eating gluten-containing products are: abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, decreased appetite, fatigue, bruising, low mood, hair loss, etc.

Being an autoimmune disorder of genetic origin, celiac disease cannot be cured. The only way to avoid symptoms is to eat a gluten-free diet for life.

2. Type 1 diabetes

Diabetes, a disease characterized by excess sugar in the blood, can be of two types: 1 and 2. Type 2 diabetes is the most common and is related to being overweight, because if a lot of sugar is consumed in the diet, Cells may become resistant to the action of insulin (the hormone that causes glucose to enter cells and does not circulate freely in the blood), leading to diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, is not related to an unhealthy lifestyle, but is caused by a genetic error. That is, it is an autoimmune disease. In this case, the immune system begins to attack the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, so that not enough of this hormone is produced and sugar travels freely through the blood.

Diabetes has the following symptoms: weight loss, great thirst, the appearance of sores that take time to heal, fatigue, weakness, recurrent infections, blurred vision ... It can lead to serious health problems (cardiovascular and kidney diseases, depression, damage to the nerves, etc.), and can even cause death.

Since it cannot be cured, treatment consists of insulin injections when necessary and careful diet including physical activity in the lifestyle.

  • We recommend you read: "The 10 most common endocrine diseases (causes, symptoms and treatment)"

3. Addison's disease

Addison's disease is an autoimmune disorder in which immune cells attack the adrenal glands, which are located in the kidneys, causing them to not be able to produce the necessary amount of hormones.

The hormones that stop being produced properly are cortisol and aldosterone, which causes the person to not be able to break down fats well or to raise their blood pressure to optimal values, respectively.

This is accompanied by certain symptoms: weight loss, decreased appetite, extreme fatigue, low blood pressure, abdominal pain, depression, hair loss, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), darkening of the skin, irritability, etc.

It cannot be cured, so treatment will consist of taking replacements of the affected hormones for life.

4. Systemic lupus erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease in which immune cells begin to attack different organs and healthy tissues, including the skin, kidneys, brain, and joints, among others.

The most common symptoms are: pain and swelling in the joints (especially fingers, hands, wrists, and knees), chest pain, unexplained fever, fatigue and weakness, mouth sores, sensitivity to sunlight , skin rashes, swollen lymph nodes, malaise, weight loss, decreased appetite ...

There will also be other symptoms depending on the region of the body affected. For example, if the damage is in the brain, there will be headaches, personality changes, vision problems ... If it affects the heart: inflammation of the heart muscles, arrhythmias ...

There is no cure and treatment will depend on the affected region of the body and the severity of the symptoms, although anti-inflammatories are the most commonly prescribed medications.

5. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which cells of the immune system attack the joints., damaging them and causing an excess of synovial fluid. This causes the bones and cartilage to constantly rub against each other.

The main symptom of arthritis is pain in the joints (especially hands, feet, knees, wrists, elbows) and stiffness. There may be other symptoms: tiredness, fever, dry mouth, tingling in the extremities, etc.

Anti-inflammatory drugs are useful to reduce excess synovial fluid, thus reducing inflammation and alleviating symptoms.

  • We recommend you read: "The 6 differences between arthritis and osteoarthritis"

6. Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease in which cells of the immune system begin to attack the protective sheath of neurons, leading to neurodegeneration leading to disability.

It is a non-fatal disease (unlike amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) with symptoms that depend on the affected nerves, although the most common is the loss of the ability to walk correctly. Muscle spasms, tremors, weakness, lack of balance, vision problems, facial pain, dizziness, etc. are also observed.

Despite there being no cure, current treatments help control symptoms and slow the progress of the disease as much as possible.

  • We recommend you read: "The 25 most common neurological diseases"

7. Guillain-Barré syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome is an autoimmune disease in which the cells of the immune system also attack the nerves. It usually causes body weakness and tingling in the extremities, although it progresses rapidly until it results in paralysis of the vital organs, which is why it ends up being fatal.

For this reason, people who begin to have typical symptoms should be admitted as early as possible, as the treatment will allow them to overcome the disease. Although it can be cured, it will leave some sequelae: weakness, fatigue and numbness of the limbs.

8. Myasthenia gravis

Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease in which cells of the immune system prevent the nerves from transmitting information to the muscles.

It does not affect the muscles controlled by the autonomic nervous system, that is, there are no problems with the heart or the digestive tract. The problem is in the muscles that move voluntarily, those that are under our control.

The main symptom is muscle weakness, which results in problems breathing, speaking, walking, lifting objects, chewing and swallowing, etc. Therefore, fatigue, vision problems, facial paralysis, keeping the head down, among others, are common.

There is no cure for this disease, although medications can help improve communication between nerves and muscles, which, along with leading a healthy lifestyle, can reduce symptoms.

9. Dermatomyositis

Dermatomyositis is a dermatological disease that, although it can also be due to a viral infection, usually has its origin in an autoimmune disorder. Cells of the immune system attack skin cells, causing inflammation and rashes.

The most common symptoms are: red skin rash, redness of the upper eyelids, muscle weakness, shortness of breath, and trouble swallowing.

Treatment consists of the administration of corticosteroids, drugs that work as anti-inflammatories and immunosuppressants, reducing the activity of the immune system so that it does not cause so much damage.

10. Hashimoto's thyroiditis

Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disorder in which cells of the immune system attack the thyroid gland, which causes an impairment in the production of hormones, thus leading to hypothyroidism.

When there are not enough thyroid hormones in the body, the metabolism cannot be adequately controlled, leading to a number of symptoms: weight gain, slow heart rate, increased blood cholesterol, drowsiness, hoarseness, depression, pain in the joints, constipation, swelling of the face, weakness and fatigue, dry skin, etc.

Despite the absence of a cure, treatments based on the administration of drugs that replace the affected hormones are often useful to reduce symptoms.

Bibliographic references

  • Singh, S.P., Wal, P., Wal, A., Srivastava, V. (2016) “Understanding Autoimmune Disease: an Update Review”. International Journal of Pharmaceutical Technology and Biotechnology.
  • Montero, L.C., Lebrato, J.C., Salomó, A.C. et al (2014) “Systemic autoimmune diseases: clinical guide to symptoms and signs in primary care”. Spanish Society of Internal Medicine and Spanish Society of Family and Community Medicine.
  • Sánchez Román, J., Castillo Palma, M.J., García Hernández, F.J. (2017) "Systemic autoimmune diseases".Virgen del Rocío University Hospital in Seville.