Simple, Important Questions & Answers about Autoimmune Diseases (III)

What Are Some Other Problems Related to Autoimmune Diseases?

Having a chronic disease can affect almost every part of your life. The problems you might have with an autoimmune disease vary. They may include:

  • How you look and your self-esteem — Depending on your disease, you may have discolored or damaged skin or hair loss. Your joints may look different. These can all affect how you look and your self-esteem. Such problems can’t always be prevented. But their effects can be reduced with treatment. Cosmetics, for example, can hide a skin rash. Surgery can correct a malformed joint.
  • Caring for yourself — Painful joints or weak muscles can make it hard to do simple tasks. You may have trouble climbing stairs, making your bed, or brushing your hair. If doing daily tasks is hard, talk with a physical therapist. The therapist can teach you exercises to improve strength and function. An occupational therapist can show you new ways to do things or tools to make tasks easier. Sometimes regular exercise or simple devices can help you do more things on your own.
  • Family relationships — Family members may not understand why you don’t have energy to do things you used to do. They may even think you are just being lazy. But they may also be overly concerned and eager to help you. They may not let you do the things you can do. They may even give up their own interests to be with you. Learn as much as you can about your disease. Share what you learn with your family. Involve them in counseling or a support group. It may help them better understand the disease and how they can help.
  • Sexual relations — Sexual relationships can also be affected. For men, diseases that affect blood vessels can lead to problems with erection. In women, damage to glands that produce moisture can lead to vaginal dryness. This makes intercourse painful. In both men and women, pain, weakness, or stiff joints may make it hard for them to move the way they once did. They may not be sure about how they look. Or they may be afraid that their partner will no longer find them attractive. With communication, good medical care, and perhaps counseling, many of these issues can be overcome or at least worked around.
  • Pregnancy and childbearing — In the past, women with some autoimmune diseases were told not to have children. But better treatments and understanding have changed that advice. Autoimmune diseases can affect pregnancy, and pregnancy can affect autoimmune diseases. But women with many such diseases can safely have children. How a pregnancy turns out can vary by disease and disease severity. If you have an autoimmune disease, you should consult your doctor about having children.

What Research Is Being Conducted To Help People With Autoimmune Diseases?

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) supports research in autoimmune diseases. Here are a few examples:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis — The National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and the North American Rheumatoid Arthritis Consortium will study 1,000 siblings with rheumatoid arthritis. Scientists will look at gene material to find and identify parts of DNA involved in the disease. They will test for proteins called rheumatoid factor in the blood. And they will look at x rays of the joints. This work will provide basic facts about the genetics of the disease.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — NIAMSsupported scientists are studying whether women with lupus can safely take oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapy. Previous research suggests that female hormones may contribute to the disease or make it worse.
  • Lupus nephritis — One NIAMS project is testing a drug that may be less toxic than the drugs now used for lupus nephritis (kidney disease caused by lupus).
  • Vitiligo — With NIAMS support, scientists are studying genes from pairs of siblings affected by this skin pigmentation disorder. They hope to find genes that may cause vitiligo and learn how they affect the skin.
  • Type 1 diabetes — Researchers supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases have found a way to identify people who are likely to get type 1 diabetes (formerly known as juvenile diabetes). They are now testing ways to prevent these people from getting the disease.
  • Multiple sclerosis — Scientists supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke are looking at the autoimmune system, infectious agents, and genes as culprits in multiple sclerosis (MS). Such studies strengthen the theory that MS comes from a number of factors rather than a single one. Studies use magnetic resonance imaging to see how MS lesions evolve in the brain’s white matter. Research has shown that MS has no bad effects on pregnancy, labor, or delivery. In fact, the stabilizing or remission of symptoms during pregnancy may be due to changes in a woman’s immune system that allow her to carry a baby.
  • Multiple autoimmune diseases — The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases is supporting clinical trials of drugs that prevent the immune system from attacking healthy cells. The Institute wants to see if they are safe and useful. Such drugs may prove helpful for treating a number of autoimmune diseases.


National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS)

National Institutes of Health 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Public Health Service

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