What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

Reviewed on 7/15/2020

What Is Autoimmune Disease?

Causes of most of the roughly 100 known autoimmune diseases are mostly unclear, but they all share the same characteristic: The body's immune system mistakes its own tissues for infectious invaders and attacks them.
Causes of most of the roughly 100 known autoimmune diseases are mostly unclear, but they all share the same characteristic: The body's immune system mistakes its own tissues for infectious invaders and attacks them.

Autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body mistakenly attacks itself instead of foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi. 

There are more than 100 known autoimmune diseases. Some examples of autoimmune diseases include:

What Are Symptoms of Autoimmune Disease?

Symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary depending on the illness and the part of the body affected. Below are symptoms of some commonly known autoimmune conditions. 

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Joint pain, tenderness, swelling, and warmth 
  • Joint stiffness lasting more than 30 minutes
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms of scleroderma include patches of thick, hard skin in one of two patterns:

  • Firm, oval shapes localized to one area or that spread to other parts of skin
  • Lines of thick or different-colored skin that run down the arms, legs, and sometimes forehead

Symptoms of lupus include:

Symptoms of psoriasis include:

  • Patches of thick, red skin with silvery scales that itch 
  • Patches usually occur on elbows, knees, legs, scalp, lower back, face, palms of the hands, and soles of feet
  • Patches may also appear on fingernails, toenails, genitals, and inside the mouth

Symptoms of Sjögren syndrome include:

Symptoms of Celiac disease include:

Symptoms of Crohn’s disease include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Abdominal pain and cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Blood in the stool
  • Mouth sores
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Weight loss
  • Drainage from a painful sore near the anus (fistula)
  • Urgent bowel movements


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What Causes Autoimmune Disease?

The causes of most autoimmune diseases are unknown but are believed to be due to

  • Genetics
    • Some autoimmune diseases run in families
  • Environmental factors 
    • Infections
    • Exposure to chemicals
    • Possibly a typical “Western diet” that consists of processed, high fat, high sugar foods

How Is Autoimmune Disease Diagnosed?

There is not one specific test to diagnose autoimmune disease. Testing depends on the suspected condition. 

Some diagnostic tests include

What Is the Treatment for Autoimmune Disease?

Treatment for autoimmune diseases depends on the specific condition. Below are treatments for some common autoimmune conditions. 

Treatment for rheumatoid arthritis includes:

  • Medications to relieve joint pain and swelling and to slow or prevent joint damage
  • Surgery, including joint replacement surgery

Treatment for scleroderma includes:

  • Medications to manage pain, decrease swelling, control other symptoms, and prevent complications 
  • Physical or occupational therapy 
  • Regular dental care because scleroderma can result in tooth decay 

Treatment for lupus includes medications, such as: 

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs for pain or fever
  • Antimalarials to treat fatigue, joint pain, skin rash, and lung inflammation 
  • Corticosteroids to treat inflammation 
  • Immunosuppressants 
  • Certain biologic medications

Treatment for psoriasis includes:

  • Topical (for the skin) treatments such as creams, ointments, or gels
  • Light therapy
  • Systemic medications taken orally or by injection

Treatment for Sjögren syndrome includes:

  • Pain relievers such as aspirin and ibuprofen for joint or muscle pain 
  • Medicines that help with saliva production
  • Corticosteroids to suppress inflammation 
  • Immunosuppressants 
  • Eye drops and ointments for dry eyes
  • Surgery to close the tear ducts that drain tears from the eye
  • Medicine to help produce more saliva

Treatment for Celiac disease includes:

Treatment for Crohn’s disease includes:

  • Medications to treat inflammation such as aminosalicylates and corticosteroids
  • Immunomodulators
  • Biologic therapies
  • Resting the bowels with a liquid-only diet
  • Surgery such as small bowel resection, subtotal colectomy, proctocolectomy, and ileostomy

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Reviewed on 7/15/2020
Medscape Medical Reference

National Institutes of Health