A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Autoimmune diseases: What you need to know

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An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system attacks your body’s healthy cells.

An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your immune system attacks your body’s healthy cells. Normally, the immune system can tell the difference between bacteria and viruses and healthy cells. Instead, with autoimmune disease, your immune system misfires and attacks a single area like your joints, eyes or skin, or it can affect your whole body.

More than 80 types of autoimmune conditions exist. Common conditions include multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and systematic lupus. They can share similar symptoms including fatigue, joint pain and swelling, skin problems and recurring fever. Symptoms may be severe for some and mild for others.

Autoimmune conditions are complex to diagnose

Other diseases may have the same symptoms. Patients begin exploring symptoms with their internal medicine or family practice doctor before receiving a referral to a neurologist.

Science and medical knowledge of autoimmune conditions has advanced significantly in the past 10 years. “We have new ways to diagnose, and treatments and options to stop or reduce progression,” said Dr. Paula Aston, neurologist at Marshfield Clinic Health System.

Quality of life concerns

“When people receive a diagnosis with MS, they think wheel chair and nursing home,” Aston said. “That should never happen in this day and age, as long as it is treated early and aggressive.”

Less than a decade ago, there were four to five FDA-approved drug options to treat autoimmune conditions. Now there are nearly 20 medications on the market. Aston encourages patients to understand that a diagnosis doesn’t have to be unnecessarily distressing.

“Treatment options have exploded,” Aston said. “We use immune therapy, disease modifying therapy, diet and lifestyle modifications and physical therapy to help each patient maintain their quality of life.”

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