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Autoimmune disease

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Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system targets and damages the body’s own cells.

autoimmune disease

Our bodies have an immune system: a network of special cells and organs that defends the body from germs and other foreign invaders.

At the core of the immune system is the ability to tell the difference between self and nonself: between what’s you and what’s foreign.

If the system becomes unable to tell the difference between self and nonself then the body makes autoantibodies (AW-toh-AN-teye-bah-deez) that attack normal cells by mistake.

At the same time, we always have regulatory T cells. They keep the rest of our immune system in line. If they fail to work correctly then other white blood cells can mistakenly attack parts of our body. This causes the damage we know as autoimmune disease.

The body parts that are affected depend on the type of autoimmune disease. There are more than 100 known types.

Overall, autoimmune diseases are common, affecting more than 23.5 million Americans. They are a leading cause of death and disability. Some autoimmune diseases are rare, while others, such as Hashimoto’s disease, affect many people.

(Intro adapted from U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office on Women’s Health)


There are many different auto-immune diseases. Each one has a separate cause. In fact, each particular autoimmune disorder itself may have several different causes.

Medical researchers are still learning how auto-immune diseases develop. They seem to be a combination of genetic mutations and some trigger in the environment.

TBA: The hygiene hypothesis


Crohn’s disease

Diabetes (Type 1 diabetes mellitus)

Guillain-Barre syndrome

Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)

Lupus (Systemic lupus erythematosus)

Multiple sclerosis (MS)

Rheumatoid arthritis


Many autoimmune disorders can now be partially treated with biologics (artificial biological molecules.) These biologics modulate the immune system. These can treat – but not cure – some auto-immune diseases.

Infliximab, etanercept, adalimumab, etc.

Learning Standards

Massachusetts Comprehensive Health Curriculum Framework

Students will gain the knowledge and skills to select a diet that supports health and reduces the risk of illness and future chronic diseases. PreK–12 Standard 4

Through the study of Prevention students will

8.1 Describe how the body fights germs and disease naturally and with medicines and immunization.

Through the study of Signs, Causes, and Treatment students will

8.2 Identify the common symptoms of illness and recognize that being responsible for individual health means alerting caretakers to any symptoms of illness

8.5 Identify ways individuals can reduce risk factors related to communicable and chronic diseases

8.13 Explain how the immune system functions to prevent and combat disease

Benchmarks for Science Literacy, AAAS

The immune system functions to protect against microscopic organisms and foreign substances that enter from outside the body and against some cancer cells that arise within. 6C/H1*

Some allergic reactions are caused by the body’s immune responses to usually harmless environmental substances. Sometimes the immune system may attack some of the body’s own cells. 6E/H1


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