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:
- Blood vessels
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 pneumonia, influenza, 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
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.
Updated January 24, 2022.