Autoimmune diseases account for a large portion of the conditions that affect women more than men. In fact, 75 percent of Americans with autoimmune diseases are women. If you have an autoimmune condition, it means that your immune system isn’t working correctly. Usually, that indicates either there is low activity of your immune system or it’s attacking and damaging your body’s own tissues. Here are some of the most common autoimmune disorders that affect women and the symptoms associated with each of them.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes the body to attack its own joints, usually in fingers and toes in the early stage and progressing to wrists, knees, ankles, elbows, hips, and shoulders. Often painful, RA also causes swelling and fatigue. It’s important to make sure you’re receiving proper treatment for RA because if left untreated, the cartilage between joints can become so damaged it can lead to immobility and may increase your risk for heart problems, lung disease, lymphoma, and other conditions. Signs and symptoms of RA can include tender, warm, swollen joints; joint stiffness that’s worse in the mornings and after inactivity; and fatigue, fever, and weight loss.
Graves’ disease is sometimes difficult to diagnose. This is because the disease produces too much thyroid hormone (hyperthyroidism), and this hormone is so intricately woven through the body that it can affect each person in widely varying ways. Symptoms to be aware of include anxiety and irritability, weight loss, thyroid enlargement, warm skin, a slight tremor in the hands or fingers, sensitivity to heat, bulging eyes, fatigue, a change in menstrual cycles, an increase in sweating, and a rapid or irregular heartbeat. To check for Graves’ disease, your doctor will likely do imaging tests, blood samples or an ultra sound, depending on your symptoms.
Multiple sclerosis, or MS, is a disease of the brain and spinal cord wherein the immune system attacks the protective sheath causing nerve problems. This inhibits communication between the brain and the rest of the body. It’s a potentially disabling disease. Symptoms may include slurred speech, fatigue, numbness or weakness in the limbs, double vision that lasts a long time, tingling or pain in the body, partial or complete loss of vision – usually in one eye at a time, dizziness, issues with bowel or bladder function, or sensations that feel like electric shocks when you move your neck.
This is the most common cause of hypothyroidism in the United States. If you have Hashimoto’s disease, your immune system attacks your thyroid and causes it to be underactive (hypothyroidism) – meaning you don’t produce enough of the thyroid hormone for your body. This disease progresses slowly over years so the symptoms can be hard to notice. Look for unexplained weight gain, fatigue, pale or dry skin, brittle nails, puffy face, depression, problems with memory, muscle weakness, extreme menstrual bleeding, sensitivity to cold, hair loss, an enlarged tongue, muscle aches, constipation, or joint pain and stiffness. Typically, Hashimoto’s can be managed with medication.
Because lupus symptoms are wide and varying, it can take years to be diagnosed. Lupus causes internal inflammation which can affect many of your body systems and organs, like your joints, kidneys, skin, blood cells, lungs, heart, and brain. The most telling symptom of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash that spreads over the bridge of the nose onto both cheeks – but this doesn’t manifest in every patient. Other symptoms are fatigue, joint pain, stiffness and swelling, headaches, photo sensitivity, hair loss, unexplained fever, confusion, memory loss, dry mouth or eyes, thyroid problems, gastrointestinal problems, shortness of breath, chest pain, and fingers or toes turning blue when exposed to cold or stress.
If you think you might have an autoimmune disorder, see your doctor as soon as possible. Early intervention is key to managing symptoms to prevent or delay future damage for as long as you can.
Dr. Yasodara Udayamurthy is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. Her clinical interests include Cardiology, diabetes, Geriatrics and preventive care.