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Community Health Resources: Autoimmune Diseases: Overview

This LibGuide is a resource to provide patrons of the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library information about the materials the library maintains on autoimmune diseases as well as freely accessible external resources that discuss the topic

General Discussion on Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune disorders and diseases are diseases that result from the pathological effects of a misguided self-directed immune response causing tissue destruction and can affect essentially any site(s) in the body, such as skin, brain, heart, liver, lung, kidney, joints and so forth. There are over 100 autoimmune diseases.


Approximately 50 million Americans, 20 percent of the population or one in five people, suffer from autoimmune diseases. Women are more likely than men to be affected; some estimates say that 75 percent of those affected--some 30 million people-are women.


A few examples include:


Addison’s Disease

Celiac Disease

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

Crohn’s Disease


Hashimotos' Thyroiditis

Multiple Sclerosis


Rheumatoid Arthritis

Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus



Cassell, D.K. & Rose, N. (2003). The Encyclopedia of Autoimmune Diseases. New York: Facts on File.

What Are Autoimmune Diseases?

Traditional Treatment

Are there medicines to treat autoimmune diseases?

There are many types of medicines used to treat autoimmune diseases. The type of medicine you need depends on which disease you have, how severe it is, and your symptoms. Treatment can do the following:

  • Relieve symptoms. Some people can use over-the-counter drugs for mild symptoms, like aspirin and ibuprofen for mild pain. Others with more severe symptoms may need prescription drugs to help relieve symptoms such as pain, swelling, depression, anxiety, sleep problems, fatigue, or rashes. For others, treatment may be as involved as having surgery.
  • Replace vital substances the body can no longer make on its own. Some autoimmune diseases, like diabetes and thyroid disease, can affect the body's ability to make substances it needs to function. With diabetes, insulin injections are needed to regulate blood sugar. Thyroid hormone replacement restores thyroid hormone levels in people with underactive thyroid.
  • Suppress the immune system. Some drugs can suppress immune system activity. These drugs can help control the disease process and preserve organ function. For instance, these drugs are used to control inflammation in affected kidneys in people with lupus to keep the kidneys working. Medicines used to suppress inflammation include chemotherapy given at lower doses than for cancer treatment and drugs used in patients who have had an organ transplant to protect against rejection. A class of drugs called anti-TNF medications blocks inflammation in some forms of autoimmune arthritis and psoriasis.

New treatments for autoimmune diseases are being studied all the time.


Women's (2013). Autoimmune diseases fact sheet . U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Causes & Symptoms

No one is sure what causes autoimmune diseases. They do tend to run in families. Women - particularly African-American, Hispanic-American, and Native-American women - have a higher risk for some autoimmune diseases. 

Often, the first symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches and a low fever. The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling.  The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when symptoms get better or disappear. Treatment depends on the disease, but in most cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation. Sometimes doctors prescribe corticosteroids or other drugs that reduce your immune response.


MedlinePlus [Internet]. Autoimmune Diseases. Bethesda (MD): National Library of Medicine (US); [updated 2005 Aug 12; cited 2005 Aug 11]. Available from:

Alternative Treatment

Are there alternative treatments that can help?

Many people try some form of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) at some point in their lives. Some examples of CAM are herbal products, chiropractic, acupuncture, and hypnosis. If you have an autoimmune disease, you might wonder if CAM therapies can help some of your symptoms. This is hard to know. Studies on CAM therapies are limited. Also, some CAM products can cause health problems or interfere with how the medicines you might need work. If you want to try a CAM treatment, be sure to discuss it with your doctor. Your doctor can tell you about the possible benefits and risks of trying CAM.


Women's (2013). Autoimmune diseases fact sheet . U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

I have symptoms, and I’m worried I may have an autoimmune disease.

What to Ask Your Doctor

  1. Are my symptoms a sign that I might have an autoimmune disease?
  2. Based on my symptoms, what kind of autoimmune disease am I likely to have?
  3. What tests should I have? What do they look for?
  4. If I have an autoimmune disease, can it be treated?  
  5. Is there anything that can be done now to help me feel better?

I have an autoimmune disease, and this is a follow-up visit.

What to Ask Your Doctor

  1. How does this autoimmune disease affect my body?
  2. What medications do you recommend? How do they work?
  3. Are there side effects I should watch out for?
  4. If my symptoms improve, can I stop taking medication?
  5. Should I see a specialist?

Source (2013). Autoimmune Disease Questions to Ask Your Doctor. Retrieved from