Autoimmune diseases: causes, types, treatment, prognosis

The immune system protects the body against infections and cancer. This protection does not work well in autoimmune diseases. The body produces antibodies or anti-cells against its own tissues, as if these were foreign. In 2020, all types together, approximately eighty autoimmune diseases are known. Examples of autoimmune diseases include acute rheumatism, Hashimoto’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and vitiligo. What are the causes and symptoms of autoimmune diseases? What are the treatment options and what is the prognosis?

Article content

  • Immune system
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Who suffers from autoimmune diseases?
  • Causes of autoimmune diseases
  • Two groups/types of autoimmune diseases
  • Brief description of various autoimmune diseases
  • Diagnosis of autoimmune diseases
  • Therapy
  • Prognosis of autoimmune diseases

Immune system

The immune system protects our body . Protection against infections (by bacteria, viruses, parasites) and against certain types of cancer. It also repairs damaged tissue. We already have certain defense mechanisms at birth, but we acquire a large part of our immunity through coming into contact with pathogens.

Autoimmune disease

If you are healthy, the cells of the immune system can tell the difference between your own body tissue and foreign organisms. In an autoimmune disease, however, the body mistakes its own tissue for foreign. In response, antibodies or white blood cells are produced and attack the tissue. Other names used for autoimmune disease: autoimmunity, autoimmune disease.

Who suffers from autoimmune diseases?

  • Autoimmune diseases mainly occur in adults and less often in children and the elderly.
  • More women than men are affected.
  • People with autoimmune diseases in the family have an increased risk.

Causes of autoimmune diseases

The cause is unknown. Autoimmune diseases are more common in some families, so hereditary factors could play a role. There are also certain factors that can trigger an autoimmune response. Consider, for example, a viral infection or a reaction to medication. One person can have multiple autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases are probably caused by an interplay of hereditary predisposition and environmental factors (multifactorial inheritance). Autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men, and hormonal influences may also play a role.

Two groups/types of autoimmune diseases

  1. Autoimmune diseases in which only one organ is damaged: for example, the adrenal glands (Addison’s disease), the pancreas (diabetes mellitus), the thyroid (Hashimoto’s disease, Graves’ disease), multiple joints (rheumatoid arthritis).
  2. Autoimmune diseases that affect the connective tissue: for example scleroderma. This involves connective tissue everywhere in the body.

Brief description of various autoimmune diseases

  • Immune Thrombopenia (ITP) is an autoimmune disease. You produce antibodies that stick to the surface of the platelets (autoantibodies). You have too few platelets, which increases your risk of bleeding.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) : this is a chronic condition that mainly affects the small joints of the hands and feet. The joints are painful, swollen, abnormal in shape and there is a feeling of stiffness. RA can start insidiously or reveal itself suddenly. This autoimmune disease occurs at all ages and affects more women than men.
  • Hashimoto’s disease : The body makes antibodies that damage the thyroid gland.
  • Diabetes mellitus : in diabetes mellitus there is a deficiency of the hormone insulin and/or the body has become insensitive to insulin. Glucose cannot be used sufficiently by the body as an energy source, so the glucose level in the blood is increased.
  • Vitiligo : Vitiligo involves loss of normal pigment from parts of the skin. This usually involves the face and hands. The body makes antibodies against its own pigment cells in the skin that make melanin
  • Sjögren’s syndrome : an inflammation of the tear and salivary glands, resulting in dry eyes and a dry mouth.
  • Graves’ disease : a thyroid condition named after Irish physician Robert Graves. In countries where people speak German, it is called Basedow’s disease, after the German doctor Karl von Basedow. Both described the disease. Graves’ disease (Basedow) is the most common cause of an overactive thyroid gland.
  • Multiple Sclerosis : This is a progressive disease of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Muscles that become increasingly weak and problems with the senses are the consequences.
  • Lupus erythematosus : also called SLE, an inflammation of the connective tissue that causes damage to the skin, joints and internal organs.
  • Addison’s disease : Addison’s disease involves too little corticosteroid hormones in the blood. Changes occur in metabolism.
  • Scleroderma : Scleroderma involves thickening or hardening of the connective tissue of the skin, joints and internal organs.
  • Stiff person syndrome (acquired): It is a disease of the nervous system. The disease is not congenital, but acquired. The syndrome may be caused by the patient’s own immune system, the exact cause is not yet known (as of 2020). The muscles of the torso, legs and arms in particular contract continuously. It can worsen under stress or loud noises. The body may stiffen and walking or making other movements becomes difficult. In addition to this acquired form, there is also a hereditary form of Stiff person syndrome, which manifests itself shortly after birth.

Diagnosis of autoimmune diseases

The blood can be checked to detect inflammation and the functioning of the immune system can be checked.


  • Treatment depends on which organs are affected.
  • In the case of a lack of hormones, such as Hashimoto’s disease and Addison’s disease, supplementing these hormones can restore health.
  • In other cases, an attempt is made to block the body’s foreign reaction with medications, such as corticosteroids or immunosuppressants (drugs that inhibit the functioning of the immune system).
  • Symptoms can also be reduced with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
  • Medicines often affect a larger area than necessary. For example, if activities of the entire immune system are reduced, the risk of infections and cancer increases. Fortunately, more and more drugs are being developed that block the immune responses associated with the disease in question.

Prognosis of autoimmune diseases

The prognosis depends on the damage caused to tissues and organs. Autoimmune diseases are usually long-term, lingering. However, the symptoms can often be controlled with medication. A serious complication that can occur: kidney failure.