The purpose of the immune system is to protect the body from infectious things like bacteria and viruses as well as from chemicals and poisons. When properly functioning, the body is great at self-defense, however, there are some medical conditions called autoimmune disorders that can destroy the protection.
What Is an Autoimmune Disorder?
When the body's immune system attacks and destroys healthy body tissue rather than protect it, it is an autoimmune disorder. There are more than 80 different types of these self-destructing disorders. How does it happen?
- White blood cells protect a person from antigens or foreign substances in the body. Antigens can be bacteria, viruses, cancer, transfused blood or a transplanted organ.
- An effectively functioning immune system produces antibodies to destroy such antigens.
- When an autoimmune disorder is present, the antibodies cannot differentiate between healthy body tissue and antigens.
- Subsequently, the immune system response is to self-destruct the body's own healthy tissue.
Who Does It Affect?
There are several factors that influence autoimmune disorders. They include genetic predisposition, environmental factors and possibly hormone influence. One theory is that one or more of these factors potentially change cells, which confuses the immune system about whether the cells are antigens or healthy body tissue.
Those affected by autoimmune disorders:
- There are 23.5 million Americans with an autoimmune disease according to the National Institutes for Health.
- More women than men are affected, especially during childbearing years when such diseases usually begin.
- Autoimmune disease is one of the top 10 leading causes of death in all females up to the age of 64 years, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
- Ethnic background and race can influence a person's chance of developing an autoimmune disease. For example, people of Hispanic and African-American descent are more likely to develop systemic lupus erythematosus.
- Family history plays a large role in those who are affected. Sometimes different autoimmune diseases can present within one family.
- People exposed to environmental factors such as chemicals or various bacterial and viral infections are susceptible.
There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune disorders recognized by the medical community, and a patient can suffer from more than one autoimmune disorder at the same time. These disorders can be systemic, in which there is reaction throughout the body, or organ specific, in which a single organ is affected.