How much do you know about autoimmune disease?

How much do you know about autoimmune disease?


If you’re living with symptoms that don’t seem to go away, and which you’ve just come to accept, you could be dealing with an autoimmune condition.

Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system, or parts of the immune system, attack parts of the body. Rather than protecting you from ‘outside enemies’, the confused immune system begins to attack you as if your own body is a danger to itself, by causing abnormally low activity or over-activity. In cases of overactivity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues, while immune deficiency diseases decrease the body’s ability to fight invaders, resulting in vulnerability to infections. There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases, some of which are more common than others.


The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, so if you suffer from the following, it’s a good idea to speak to your doctor:

  • fatigue
  • achy muscles
  • swelling and redness
  • low-grade fever
  • trouble concentrating
  • numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • hair loss
  • skin rashes

Diagnosing autoimmune diseases

There is no ‘catch-all’ test to diagnose autoimmune diseases, but there are combined tests your doctor can assess for diagnoses. If you show symptoms of an autoimmune disease, your doctor might first suggest an antinuclear antibody test (ANA). A positive test means you likely have one of these diseases, but it won’t confirm exactly which one you have.

Further testing will help to discover specific autoantibodies produced in certain autoimmune diseases. Your doctor might also do tests to check for the inflammation these diseases produce in the body.

14 most common autoimmune diseases

While there are no reliable figures to show exactly how many South Africans suffer from autoimmune diseases, Dr Harold Bloch, physician and specialist gastroenterologist at Vergelegen MediClinic, says there are an estimated four
million South Africans currently living with one or more of these conditions.

1. Type 1 diabetes

Your blood sugar levels are regulated with the help of the hormone insulin, which is produced by your pancreas. Type 1 diabetes is the result of your own immune system attacking the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas, leading to high blood sugar, which can damage organs, nerves and blood vessels.

2. Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) damages the myelin sheath, the protective coating that surrounds nerve cells. Damage to the myelin sheath affects the transmission of messages between your brain and body, which can result in problems with balance, numbness and feeling weak. Around half of all MS sufferers will require assistance to walk within 15 years of the onset of the disease.

3. Rheumatoid arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a disease in which the immune system attacks the joints, causing pain and stiffness. Unlike osteoarthritis, which generally affects people as they get older, RA can develop in people as young as 30.

4. Systemic lupus erythematosus

Although doctors in the 1800s diagnosed lupus as a skin disease because of the rash it produces, it actually affects many organs. People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body, affecting the joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys.

5. Inflammatory bowel disease

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a term used to describe conditions that cause inflammation in the lining of the intestines. Each type of IBD affects a different part of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

  • Crohn’s disease can inflame any part of the GI tract, from the mouth to the anus.
  • Ulcerative colitis affects only the lining of the large intestine (colon) and rectum.

The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever and weight loss.

6. Graves’ disease

Graves’ disease attacks the thyroid gland, causing it to overproduce hormones. Thyroid hormones control the body’s energy usage, or metabolism, and having too much of these hormones can push your body into doing too much, too fast. This results in symptoms like a fast heartbeat, feeling nervous, and unintended weight loss. A common indicator of the disease is exophthalmos – bulging eyes – which affects about half of all Graves’ disease sufferers.

7. Myasthenia gravis

This affects nerves that help the brain control the muscles. When these nerves are impaired, signals cannot direct the
muscles to move. The most common symptom is muscle weakness, which worsens with activity and improves when muscles are rested. The disease often affects the muscles that control swallowing and facial movement.

8. Pernicious anaemia

This affects a protein that helps the intestines absorb vitamin B12. Without this vitamin, the body cannot make enough red blood cells. Symptoms include weakness, headaches, chest pain and weight loss, memory loss and unsteadiness when walking.

9. Vasculitis

Vasculitis occurs when the immune system attacks blood vessels. The inflammation that results narrows the arteries and veins, allowing less blood to flow through them.

10. Sjögren’s syndrome

This condition attacks the joints and the glands that provide lubrication to the eyes and mouth. The hallmark symptoms are joint pain, dry eyes, and dry mouth.

11. Addison’s disease

Addison’s disease affects the adrenal glands, which produce the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Producing
too little of these hormones can affect the way the body uses and stores carbohydrates and sugar, and can result in weakness, low blood sugar and weight loss.

12. Hashimoto’s thyroiditis

This causes hormone production by the thyroid to slow, which results in symptoms such as extreme fatigue, hair loss, weight gain and swelling of the thyroid.

13. Celiac disease

People with celiac disease should avoid foods containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grain products. When gluten is in the intestine, the immune system attacks it and causes inflammation.

14. Psoriasis

Skin cells grow and shed when no longer needed, but psoriasis causes skin cells to multiply too quickly. Overactive immune system blood cells called T-cells collect in the skin, stimulating skin cells into rapid reproduction, which results in silvery, scaly plaques on the skin.

Autoimmune treatment

Unfortunately, autoimmune diseases can’t be cured. They can be successfully treated, however, by controlling the
overactive immune responses and inflammation caused by the condition. There are also treatments available to relieve symptoms like swelling, rashes, pain and fatigue. Eating a well-balanced diet and regular exercise can also help you feel better.


The advice contained here is strictly for informational purposes. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, and treatment. Always consult your GP or a doctor for specific information regarding your health.


About Caitlin Geng

Your Family’s Content Editor, and a real word nerd who loves reading and writing. She was recently married, in 2018, and is a ‘mom’ to two loveable pugs. Caitlin received 3rd place in the ‘Galliova Up and Coming Food/Health Writer of the Year’ category in 2019!


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