What Autoimmune Diseases Are and What Can Be Done to Alleviate Them

Some 25 million Americans are afflicted by these diseases as the body attacks itself. Tufts immunologist Pilar Alcaide explains what’s happening
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If you have celiac disease, inadvertently consuming even a single crumb of bread can lead to gastrointestinal upset for weeks or months. For those who suffer from lupus, a flare can damage kidneys—or even worse. People with rheumatoid arthritis suffer from debilitating joint pain.

They are very different ailments, but all have one thing in common: they are autoimmune diseases, conditions when the body’s immune system attacks not external pathogens but the body itself.

Increasingly, researchers are finding other diseases that have a root cause in autoimmune function. Some 24 million Americans are affected by more than 80 autoimmune diseases, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and it seems as if more people are being diagnosed with them than before.

Normally, when our bodies are faced with pathogens—such as bacteria or viruses—our immune systems kick into high gear to protect us from these invaders. But sometimes our immune systems confuse parts of our tissues and organs as foreign invaders and attack them instead. The inflammatory response that can knock out an invading bacterium ends up damaging our own health.

Pilar Alcaide, a Kenneth and JoAnn G. Wellner Professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, is an immunologist, focusing on how the immune system impacts cardiovascular health. She also has a personal understanding of these types of diseases. When she was around 6 years old, she was diagnosed with the skin condition psoriasis—an autoimmune disease. It was unusual for a young person to experience the severe psoriasis type she was diagnosed with, and a reminder that these diseases affect all kinds of people.

Tufts Now spoke with Alcaide to learn more about autoimmune diseases, what causes them, who gets them the most, and what can be done about them.

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