Autoimmune diseases are conditions that arise when the immune system fails to recognise the bodies own tissues and cells as “self” and instead mounts an immune response against them as if they were foreign bodies. Depending on the type of illness a person has, autoimmune conditions can affect various different areas of the body, as well as disrupting the normal growth and development of organs.
A diagnosis of autoimmunity may be suspected based on a patient’s symptoms, blood test results and details of their family history.
The immune system usually produces antibodies in response to the presence of harmful substances in the body such as certain chemicals, bacteria and viruses. These foreign invaders are referred to as antigens. In the case of autoimmunity however, the body produces antibodies against its own tissues and cells. These antibodies are referred to as autoantibodies and the cells and tissues that trigger their production are called self-antigens.
Diagnosis of an autoimmune disease involves tests to identify whether these autoantibodies are being produced by the body. Other blood markers that indicate increased immune activity are also checked.
Some of the tests used to diagnose autoimmune disorders include:
- Antinuclear antibody tests – This tests for a type of autoantibody that targets the cell nuclei
- Autoantibody tests – These tests are performed to check for autoantibodies produced against the body’s own tissues
- Complete blood count – The number of red and white blood cells is checked to see whether the immune system is actively fighting disease
- C-reactive protein – This protein is raised when inflammation is occurring in the body
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate – This acts as another inflammatory marker
Autoimmune diseases are chronic conditions that cannot be cured and treatment is aimed at controlling the body’s autoimmune processes, alleviating symptoms and maintaining the patient’s ability to fight disease.
Depending on the patient’s type of disease and symptoms, a doctor may suggest taking the following measures:
- A healthy diet and exercise
- Vitamin supplementation
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Blood transfusion
- Pain relief medication
Many patients take medication to reduce the body’s immune response and these agents are referred to as immunosuppressive drugs. Examples include corticosteroids such as prednisone and non-steroid agents such as azathioprine, sirolimus or tacrolimus.
Reviewed by Sally Robertson, BSc