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Everything you need to know about autoimmune disorders

When your immune system mistakes your own cells as being foreign and produces antibodies to attack them, you have what’s called an autoimmune disorder. The exact reason why this happens is unknown but many experts believe it could be caused by a virus, medication or environmental factors. If a member of your family has an autoimmune disorder, you’re at a higher risk of having one yourself.

Recent studies have shown that having certain autoimmune disorders can increase your chances of some forms of cancer but more research is needed.

Types of autoimmune disorder

There are over eighty different autoimmune disorders but here are some of the most common:

Multiple sclerosis – This is a condition which sees your immune system attacking the myelin that protects your nerve fibres, resulting in your nervous system not working as it should. This can leave you with balance and vision problems, stiffness in your joints and spasms.

Type 1 diabetes – 10% of people with diabetes have type 1. Your body’s insulin-producing cells no longer work so glucose builds up in your bloodstream. To correct this, you have to take daily insulin injections.

Rheumatoid arthritis – This condition results in swelling, pain and stiffness in your joints and is the second most common form of arthritis in the UK. The joints usually affected include the hands, wrists, knees, feet and elbows.

Coeliac disease – More than 1 in 100 people have this condition and are unable to eat anything containing gluten. If you have coeliac disease your body mistakes gluten as being harmful and will attack, causing damage to your intestines.

Vitiligo – Your melanocyte cells are responsible for producing melanin which gives your skin its colour. When your body mistakenly attacks and destroys your melanocyte you’re left with white patches of skin. They can appear anywhere but are most common on your face, hands and other areas of exposed skin.

Psoriasis – If you have this skin condition your immune system causes your skin cells to be replaced every three to seven days, rather than every three to four weeks. This can leave your skin feeling sore, red and crusty.

Crohn's disease – With this condition, your digestive system and/or gut doesn’t work as it should and becomes inflamed. It’s a form of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

Getting help

There is currently no cure for autoimmune disorders but your doctor will be able to recommend various treatments that might elevate your symptoms once you’ve been diagnosed. There is medication available for some types of autoimmune disorders but the problem is that they often don’t target a specific area so could reduce the effectiveness of your whole immune system.

It might be that making small changes to your diet and exercising more could help, or you may need to consider physiotherapy, acupuncture or hormone replacement therapy instead. Your doctor will be happy to talk you through the different options available.

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