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What are autoimmune diseases?

There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, and they affect around 5% of Australians. But what are they?

Charmaine Yabsley
June 2018

Your immune system is your body’s number-one defender, a power-packed network of tissues, proteins, organs and cells. They work together to protect you against disease-causing organisms (such as bacteria and viruses).

White blood cells are the body’s foot soldiers. They seek out bacteria, viruses and infections and destroy them.

Problems arise when our immune system falsely identifies something good in our body as harmful and tries to remove it.

Explaining autoimmune diseases

An autoimmune disease is a condition where your immune system mistakenly attacks your body; it’s not clear why.

Genetics and environmental factors can increase your susceptibility to them. “You need to have the potential for autoimmunity in your DNA,” says GP Dr Karen Coates. Studies show that you’re more susceptible to autoimmune disease if your mother has had one. Women are also more likely to have an autoimmune disease.

There are no cures for autoimmune diseases, but you can manage the symptoms. “It’s possible to reduce autoimmune disease triggers through medication, diet, exercise and limiting stress,” explains Dr Coates.

Although there are many different types of autoimmune diseases, here we take a closer look at 3: multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

MS Australia describes MS as the body’s immune system mistakenly attacking and damaging myelin, the fatty material around the nerves. Myelin is important for protecting and insulating nerves so the electrical messages the brain sends to the rest of the body travel quickly and efficiently.

During an MS attack, patches of nerves become exposed, and then scarred, stopping the nerves to communicate messages to the brain properly. This in turn means the brain can’t talk to the other parts of the body. Symptoms may include loss of leg, hand or arm function, loss of sensation, pins and needles, vertigo, visual disturbances and memory loss or cognitive difficulties.

There are approximately 23,000 Australians living with MS, and roughly 3 times more women than men are affected.

“MS can be a very hard disease to diagnose early on, as the symptoms are similar to those from stress,” says Dr Coates. “As the symptoms can come and go, by the time you’ve seen a doctor they may have settled down,” she says. “This is because the nerve becomes inflamed, then settles, because your body has calmed down the inflammation caused by the disease.”

Diagnosis of MS involves a MRI scan of the brain and spine to detect lesions caused by multiple sclerosis in the central nervous system.

MS Australia says managing the disease may involve medication, exercise, dietary changes and quitting smoking.

Rheumatoid arthritis

According to Australian Bureau of Statistics 2% of Australians report having rheumatoid arthritis.

The tissue lining a healthy joint, called the synovial membrane, is very thin and produces fluid that lubricates and nourishes the joint. “In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the synovial membrane, causing inflammation, pain, swelling and stiffness,” says Dr Coates.

Other symptoms include redness around the joints and problems with the heart, respiratory system, nerves and eyes.

“Rheumatoid arthritis can destroy joints, so you need to start managing it quickly, through diet, lifestyle change and medication,” says Coates.

Lifestyle changes to consider include not smoking, weight loss if advised and eating a balanced diet of fresh fruit and vegetables and lean proteins, especially fish. Physical activity, can also help keep relieve the joints, so consider swimming, yoga or walking.


Lupus can affect many different parts of the body. The exact cause isn’t known, but it’s thought to be a combination of genes and risk factors including certain medications, hormones and infections.

Lupus is rare, affecting approximately 20,000 people in Australia. About 90% of people with lupus are women and the majority develop the condition between 15 and 45 years of age. It’s difficult to diagnose as symptoms can mimic many other illnesses.

Symptoms may include fatigue, joint pain and swelling, hair loss, fever and a skin rash. Diagnosis can take some time, and usually involves tracking your symptoms, as well as blood and urine tests.

Most people with lupus are able to manage the disease and enjoy a good quality of life with effective treatments including medications, and by following a healthy lifestyle.

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