Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are illnesses that cause your immune system to attack your body’s healthy cells and tissues. Your immune system is made up of cells, proteins, and organs. It is your defense system from many illnesses. When it is working as it should, your immune system recognizes dangers to your body and fights bacteria, viruses, and other dangerous microorganisms. When an autoimmune disease develops, your immune system can no longer tell the healthy cells from dangers to the body.

Autoimmune diseases are surprisingly common; there are more than 80 types. It’s estimated that more than 24 million people in the United States have some form of autoimmune disease, and the incidence is rising. Some are well known, such as rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes, while others, like scleroderma, are rare.

These diseases can affect any part of your body. This is a small example:

  • Thyroid
  • Blood vessels
  • Liver
  • Kidney
  • Uterus
  • Brain
  • Eyes
  • Lungs
  • Stomach
  • Intestines

While some diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease may affect only one part of the body, other conditions can affect several areas. Diabetes, which increases your blood sugar (glucose), can affect your eyes, skin, kidneys, blood vessels, and more.

Autoimmune diseases don’t cause sepsis

Autoimmune diseases do not cause sepsis. But people with certain types of autoimmune diseases are at higher risk of developing infections, which can cause sepsis. As well, medications that may be used to treat some autoimmune disorders can weaken your immune system, making it easier for you to develop an infection. This includes treatments with corticosteroids (like prednisone), chemotherapy, and immunotherapy.

 Sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning, sepsis is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.

Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumoniainfluenza, or urinary tract infections. Bacterial infections are the most common cause of sepsis. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations.

These are a few of the autoimmune diseases that increase your risk of infection:

  • Diabetes (skin is fragile and slow to heal)
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (perforated bowel)
  • Myasthenia gravis (may cause paralysis, choking, etc.)
  • Psoriasis (cracked skin may become infected)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis (as a result of certain types of treatment)
  • Lupus – systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Sarcoidosis

Symptoms of autoimmune diseases

Each disease has its own set of signs and symptoms, depending on the part of the body it primarily affects. Therefore, if you have rheumatoid arthritis, the symptoms would include pain, redness or warmth over the joints, and swelling. If you have inflammatory bowel disease, your symptoms would be related to your bowel habits and pain or discomfort in your intestines. Other diseases, such as lupus, may affect one part of your body at first, then affect other areas as the disease progresses.

Treatment for autoimmune diseases

Just as each disease has its unique set of signs and symptoms, treatment is unique to each person and illness. Many medications can treat or manage a variety of autoimmune diseases. Each treatment is tailored to each patient’s needs. They depend on the severity of the disease and how well the treatment works.

The treatments for autoimmune diseases usually work towards slowing down the immune system’s response. Since the immune system is working too hard at fighting the healthy cells, the doctors want to slow down the overall response. This involves using medications such as corticosteroids or certain types of immunotherapies. However, while these treatments stop your immune system from attacking the healthy cells, they also slow down your ability to fight viruses, bacteria, and other dangerous organisms. This is why you have a higher risk of getting an infection.

What you can do

Before starting treatment for your autoimmune disease, ask your healthcare provider about how the medication may affect your immune system and any precautions you should take. You may have to avoid certain types of vaccinations. If this is the case, ask if there are alternatives that you can have. You may also have to report, as soon as possible, any contact with specific illnesses or signs and symptoms of an infection.

If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.” 

 

 

You can learn more about infection prevention among people who are immunocompromised by clicking here.

Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.

Suggested Citation: Sepsis Alliance. Sepsis and Autoimmune Diseases. 2022. https://www.sepsis.org/sepsisand/autoimmune-diseases/

Updated January 24, 2022.

Read Personal Stories of Sepsis and Autoimmune Diseases

Jackie D.

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Stacey Clegg

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In January of 2016 I began to fall ill. Over the past few months, my health had deteriorated. I was admitted to accident and emergency over two different trusts and no health practitioner could identify with my symptoms: dizzy, lower back pain, weakness in my thighs. It was suggested I was to be referred to spinal as the physiotherapy consultant suggested I may have cauda equina, a serious condition and should it left, can result in a wheel chair. I had weeks of appointments, both in my GP surgery and in different hospital trusts and was discharged with medications. Fast ... Read Full Story

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Karin Solis

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In 2010 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, antiphospholipid syndrome and Raynaud’s syndrome. (Sepsis and Autoimmune Disorders) More ailments started to surface over the years. I started having routine seizures, skin lesions often testing positive for staph, complications from antibiotics, caustic or abrasive allergies, enlarged lymph nodes, chronic migraines and most recently complex migraines which mimic strokes. I was on weekly chemotherapy and biweekly biological injections known as immunosuppressants for 8 years. (Sepsis and Impaired Immune System) I caught a cold in December 2016 and within a blink of an eye my temperature raised above 104. I was taken to ... Read Full Story

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Carolyn Handrock

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I am a 47-year-old single Mom with a 10-year-old son. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2010, and had been doing pretty well despite the pain and joint swelling. (Sepsis and Autoimmune Diseases) My doctor had put me on a biologic, but I had to stop taking it after I got a bone infection and had to have part of my right foot amputated. (Sepsis and Impaired Immune System, Sepsis and Amputations) Despite this, I was still able to walk pretty well and was taking medicine that did an ok job controlling my pain. A couple of years after ... Read Full Story

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Rick Glasco

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My son was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was only 29. (Sepsis and Autoimmune Diseases) He had been having some terrible stomach issues and was in lots of pain and getting weaker each day. I had taken him to emergency a couple of times but no answer. He was given blood transfusions n some meds then sent home. I took him to his primary doctor and right away he said he was going to admit him to the hospital. They called in a gastrointestinal doctor and after many test they agreed it was ulcerative colitis and was put on ... Read Full Story

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Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases are illnesses that cause your immune system to attack your body’s healthy cells and tissues. Your immune system is made up of cells, proteins, and organs. It is your defense system from many illnesses. When it is working as it should, your immune system recognizes dangers to your body and fights bacteria, viruses, and other dangerous microorganisms. When an autoimmune disease develops, your immune system can no longer tell the healthy cells from dangers to the body.