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July 31, 2014, 7:31 am

What to do if your body attacks itself

Mariah Carey’s husband, Nick Cannon, has spoken out in the wake of his headline-grabbing troubles and revealed that his kidney, blood clots and heart woes are actually the result of a “lupus-type” autoimmune disorder.

More and more, we are all hearing about friends, family, and even celebrities who are “victims” of autoimmune disease — especially lupus.

Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease driven by inflammation in which the immune system indiscriminately attacks “self-tissues” throughout the body. It is estimated that more than 16,000 people are diagnosed with lupus each year in the United States. Approximately 1.5 million Americans, and 5 million people worldwide, currently live with lupus.

Lupus autoimmunity can cause variable symptoms from person to person. Parts of the body frequently affected by lupus include the skin, kidneys, heart and vascular system, nervous system, connective tissues, musculoskeletal system, and other organ systems.

Your immune system is the network of cells and tissues throughout your body that work together to defend you from invasion and infection. You can think of it as having two parts: the innate and the acquired immune systems.

The more primitive innate (or inborn) immune system activates white blood cells to destroy invaders. The innate system alerts the body to danger when it senses the presence of parts that are often found in many viruses or bacteria. The acquired (or adaptive) immune system develops as a person grows. It “remembers” different invaders so that it can fight them better if they come back. When the immune system is working properly, foreign invaders (antigens) provoke the body to produce proteins called antibodies and specific types of white blood cells that help in defense. The antibodies attach to the invaders so that they can be recognized and destroyed.

Autoimmune diseases arise from an overactive immune response of the body against substances and tissues normally present in the body. In other words, the body actually attacks its own cells.

Normally the immune system’s white blood cells help protect the body from harmful substances, called antigens. Examples of antigens include bacteria, viruses, toxins, cancer cells, and blood or tissues from another person or species. The immune system produces antibodies that destroy these harmful substances.

What causes the immune system to no longer tell the difference between healthy body tissues and antigens is unknown. One theory is that some microorganisms (such as bacteria or viruses) or drugs may trigger some of these changes, especially in people who have genes that make them more likely to get autoimmune disorders.

These diseases tend to run in families. Women — particularly African-American, Hispanic-American and Native-American women — have a higher risk for some autoimmune diseases.

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, and some have similar symptoms. This makes it hard for your health care provider to know if you really have one of these diseases, and if so, which one. Getting diagnosed can be frustrating and stressful. In many people, the first symptoms are being tired, muscle aches and low fever.

The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when they all but disappear. The diseases do not usually go away, but symptoms can be treated.

An autoimmune disorder may result in:

  • The destruction of one or more types of body tissue
  • Abnormal growth of an organ
  • Changes in organ function

Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, including the heart, brain, nerves, muscles, skin, eyes, joints, lungs, kidneys, glands, the digestive tract and blood vessels.

The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain, and swelling. How an autoimmune disease affects you depends on what part of the body is targeted. If the disease affects the joints, as in rheumatoid arthritis and psoriatic arthritis, you might have joint pain, stiffness and loss of function. If it affects the thyroid, as in Graves’ disease and thyroiditis, it might cause tiredness, weight gain and muscle aches. If it attacks the skin, as it does in scleroderma/systemic sclerosis, vitiligo and systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), it can cause rashes, blisters, and color changes.

Diagnosing lupus can be difficult. It may take months or even years for doctors to piece together the symptoms to diagnose this complex disease accurately. Making a correct diagnosis of lupus requires knowledge and awareness on the part of the doctor and good communication on the part of the patient. Giving the doctor a complete, accurate medical history (for example, what health problems you have had and for how long) is critical to the process of diagnosis. This information, along with a physical examination and the results of laboratory tests, helps the doctor consider other diseases that may mimic lupus, or determine if you truly have the disease. Reaching a diagnosis may take time as new symptoms appear.

Most autoimmune diseases are chronic, but many can be controlled with treatment. Symptoms of autoimmune disorders can come and go. When symptoms get worse, it is called a flare-up.

If you or someone you love is living with an autoimmune disorder, it’s important to get all the facts on the condition. Though researchers don’t know exactly what causes autoimmunity, much has been learned about the risk factors involved. Known connections: Women seem to develop autoimmune diseases more often than men, and some believe that infections may play a role in autoimmunity. After an autoimmune disease diagnosis, your main priority should be getting the care you need to manage your particular disorder, and that may mean finding medical experts who specialize in your autoimmune condition.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself, and live the best life possible!

 

The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

Glenn Ellis is a Health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health-related topics.

His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” was released in January. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.