It’s probably not surprising that heart disease and cancer are the two most common categories of disease in the United States, but would you believe autoimmune disease comes in at number three? About 8% of Americans have an autoimmune disease, and nearly 80% of them are women.
With autoimmune disease, the immune system mistakes part of the body as a foreign invader and attacks, said Dr. Stuart D. Kaplan, chief of rheumatology at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York. “That causes problems because when the body attacks itself, there’s usually inflammation of whatever part is being attacked — whether it be the joints, gastrointestinal (GI) tract or other parts of the body.”
Are there any ways to prevent autoimmune diseases from developing? Aside from sex and genetics, stress is one of the biggest overall risk factors, Kaplan explained. “Stress plays a large role in probably the development and certainly exacerbation of these diseases,” he said. “So trying to minimize stress, both physical and emotional, goes a long way.”
Learn the signs of autoimmune diseases
There are around 80 different autoimmune diseases, ranging from rare to widespread. Because women carry most of the burden when it comes to these conditions, knowing about some of the more common diseases may help you recognize the signs.
Alopecia areata (AA) is an autoimmune disorder that causes sudden hair loss, usually in patches. It occurs when the immune system attacks healthy hair follicles. Men and women of all ages and ethnicities can be affected by AA, with symptoms usually starting to appear during childhood.
While AA can cause hair loss anywhere on the body, many people develop round bald patches on the scalp. In about 50% of people with AA, hair grows back within a year of falling out. Unpredictable cycles of hair loss and regrowth can go on for years.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that occurs in men and women equally. It affects the skin, speeding up the growth of skin cells and causing patches of thick, red and scaly skin. These patches typically appear on the elbows, knees, scalp, face, lower back, palms and soles of the feet.
Inflammation from psoriasis can affect not just the skin but other tissues, organs and joints, causing conditions like psoriatic arthritis (PsA) and raising the risk of serious health problems, such as heart attack and stroke.
Affecting one in three people with psoriasis, PsA is a type of arthritis that involves joint swelling, pain and stiffness. Like psoriasis, PsA can increase your risk of developing other health problems, including:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
As far as risk factors for developing PsA, family history is a big one — about 40% of people with psoriasis or PsA have a family history of these diseases. Although women and men get the disease at the same rate, they are affected in different ways and women often do not respond as well to treatment.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes swelling in the lining of your joints. The main symptoms of RA are painful, swollen joints, but inflammation from RA can affect other parts of the body as well. In about 40% of people with RA, the disease affects the skin, eyes, heart, lungs, kidneys, bone marrow and other parts of the body beyond the joints.
Some of the risk factors for RA are:
- Sex (women are more likely to develop RA than men)
- Family history of RA
- Excess weight
A type of eczema, atopic dermatitis (AD) causes itchy, red patches all over the body. Some of the symptoms and side effects of AD are:
- Sensitive skin
- Allergies (including severe food allergies)
- Skin infections
- Poor sleep
Hormonal changes during the reproductive years make AD more common in women than men. A personal or family history of eczema, allergies or asthma are also major risk factors for AD.
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that affects the digestive system, and it affects women more frequently than men. With Crohn’s disease, inflammation in different parts of the digestive tract causes symptoms such as:
- Stomach pain and cramping
- Chronic diarrhea
- Weight loss
Crohn’s can cause people to feel weak, tired and sick, and it can be life-threatening in some cases. It may cause complications in the digestive system such as ulcers and bowel obstruction, where damaged tissue blocks the intestines, potentially requiring surgery to remove it. Crohn’s can also cause inflammation in parts of the body outside the digestive system, including your joints, skin and liver.
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is another type of IBD. UC is different from Crohn’s in that inflammation only happens in the large intestine and colon instead of the entire digestive tract, but the two share symptoms like stomach cramping and diarrhea. Some other symptoms of UC are:
- Rectal pain
- Problems defecating even when you feel an urgent need
- Blood in your stool (poop)
Like Crohn’s disease, UC causes chronic inflammation that can affect more than just the digestive system. Arthritis, osteoporosis and toxic megacolon (rapidly swelling colon) are some of the complications that may happen with UC.
Systemic lupus erythematosus
SLE can affect your:
- Blood vessels
Symptoms of SLE may include:
- Joint pain and swelling
- Skin rashes
- Sun sensitivities
- Mouth sores
- Lung, heart and kidney problems
While this disease can affect people of all ages, women between the ages of 15 and 44 are at greatest risk of developing SLE. Of the roughly 1.5 million Americans living with lupus, 90% are women. People belonging to minority racial and ethnic groups (Black, Latinx, Asian, American Indian/Alaska Native) are affected by SLE more often than white people.
Getting a diagnosis
If you’re concerned about autoimmune disease, talk to your healthcare provider. The sooner you’re able to get a diagnosis, the sooner you can start treating your condition and finding support.
This resource was created with support from Eli Lilly.