Can you name an autoimmune disease? If you can, you’re amo..." /> Can you name an autoimmune disease? If you can, you’re amo..." />

Women and Autoimmune Disease

Headshot of smiling womanCan you name an autoimmune disease? If you can, you’re among a small, select group. According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), only 13% of Americans can actually name an autoimmune disease. March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, and the AARDA is trying to spread the word about these common, disabling, and sometimes deadly conditions. There are more than 100 autoimmune diseases, affecting over 50 million Americans, and women are disproportionately represented. In fact, 75% of autoimmune sufferers are women.

Autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system becomes misdirected and attacks its own organs rather than just invading organisms. The reason that women are more susceptible is unclear, but several theories have been proposed. Women typically have a stronger immune system, which may increase their risk of an increased inflammatory response. Sex hormones also have been implicated, since symptom flare-ups are often affected by a woman’s menstrual cycle, the use of oral contraceptives, or pregnancy. Genetic differences are also under investigation. Some examples of autoimmune diseases that disproportionately affect women include lupus, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Prevalence alone is not the only reason women need to be aware of these conditions. Women often face difficulty acquiring an initial diagnosis. Symptoms may be vague and intermittent at first and are frequently hard to describe. Sometimes physicians fail to consider autoimmunity when facing a woman who looks healthy and whose symptoms are hard to evaluate. Women may be sent home without a diagnosis or treatment plan and, worse yet, may be dismissed as a nuisance. In fact, a 2001 survey by the Autoimmune Diseases Association found that 45% of patients had been labeled as chronic complainers during the onset of their illness.

When confronted with the challenge of an autoimmune disease, it is critical to advocate for your needs. Obtaining support from family and friends is essential, but so is gathering information and asserting your concerns to your health-care providers. If you are not satisfied with your care, fail to receive adequate treatment, or are treated disrespectfully, it may be time to seek another opinion. Since autoimmune diseases are often misunderstood by the public, you may need to educate family, friends, and coworkers about the illness and how it is affecting you. As with any chronic illness, if you experience anxiety or depression associated with trying to manage its impact on you, it may be helpful to seek counseling from a mental health professional.

Useful websites:

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© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Gail Post, Ph.D., Women's Issues Topic Expert Contributor

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  • Hyland

    March 28th, 2012 at 11:27 AM

    What is up with this rise in the number of women who are getting these diseases? I have worked in the medical field all of my life and have only just recently come to see just how many women this is affecting. It just seems like over the past few years this has become the standard, and when the doctors don’t know what else could be causing certain symptoms they automatically lump the diagnosis into the autoimmune disease category. But this only gives the women a sort of name for what they have been experiencing, but no real answers and solutions, and certainly no cures. These women want answers and help, not just some vague diagnosis that only gets them frowned upon for having something “wrong in the head”. Nobody looks at this as something real, when it is for so many who are suffering through it.

  • Jenna S

    March 28th, 2012 at 2:53 PM

    Things like this scare me!
    How do we know what is causing this outbreak of autoimmune diseases?
    Is it the food that we eat or the air that we breathe?
    Nobody seems to know where all the numbers are coming from or how to stop it.

  • brock

    March 28th, 2012 at 11:39 PM

    didn’t know a single autoimmune disease.thank you for this article.50 million americans suffer from this but still there is such little awareness!

    going to read the referenced websites now,thanks.

  • Ryan P

    March 29th, 2012 at 4:14 AM

    Do you think that more women really do come down with these disorders, or is it that they tend to be more mindful of their health, and when something goes wrong they will go to the doctor to find out what is going on, and they will do that in far greater numbers than men would?

  • Shayne

    March 29th, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    Not only are you going to have to advocate for yourself, but you are going to have to find a provider who will advocate for you too.

    You don’t have to stand by and be “treated” like you are nothing but whiny and a complainer. And you know that is what a lot of doctors think about those of us who have these symptoms that they don’t have a name for.

    Do the research, is what I have learned, and learn to ask the right questions, because nobody really cares as much about your own health as you do.

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