Autoimmune diseases affect five per cent of Australians.
Yet awareness about what they actually are, and the different forms they take, is exceptionally low.
So what are autoimmune diseases, exactly?
We spoke to Dr Preeya Maharaj, a GP based in Melbourne, to find out the facts about autoimmune disease.
What are autoimmune diseases?
Dr Maharaj explains autoimmune diseases to her patients as something that has made the immune system turn on the body and start attacking the tissues.
“In a nutshell, an autoimmune disease is where the body’s own immune system targets the body… the area targeted depends on the type of autoimmune disease,” Dr Maharaj says.
“The body’s own immune cells start to attack parts of the body – in rheumatoid arthritis for instance, the joints get affected, whereas in coeliac disease it’s the gut that gets targeted,” she added.
What are the different types of autoimmune diseases?
There are over 80 different forms of autoimmune diseases that target different organs in the body.
“Diseases like rheumatoid arthritis affect the joints, conditions like inflammatory bowel disease (such as ulcerative colitis) affect the bowel, and type 1 diabetes involves the pancreas being targeted resulting in the body being unable to produce insulin,” explains Dr Maharaj.
What is the process of diagnosis?
The diagnosis process for autoimmune diseases is complicated, but family history is always important.
“We always take a thorough history including an extensive family history. We know that autoimmune conditions can run in families and so we will always ask you about your family history in detail,” explains Dr Maharaj.
If the doctor has enough information to suspect a specific autoimmune disease, they will examine certain parts of the body that might be affected.
“Examination is also key – we look for certain features, according to the autoimmune disease we suspect. In rheumatoid arthritis for instance, we know certain joints in the hands tend to be affected most of the time, in psoriasis (an autoimmune disease involving the skin) we do a whole skin examination looking at the skin for signs of the rash (including the scalp),” says Dr Maharaj.
Blood tests are also incredibly useful, as they allow the doctor to examine the blood for antibodies, markers that indicate whether the body’s immune system has attacked the body.
“Blood tests are very helpful in diagnosis and we often look for certain antibodies. Blood tests including inflammatory markers are very helpful when diagnosing autoimmune disease. The investigations we do varies according to the disease we suspect – in ulcerative colitis for instance, patients will usually undergo a colonoscopy (a test that looks inside the bowel and enables biopsies to be taken) and in rheumatoid arthritis we might also do X-rays to look at the joints more closely,” explains Dr Maharaj.