AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES

By Marissa B. Larochelle, MD

WHAT ARE AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES?

Autoimmune diseases are often chronic, systemic (meaning affecting various parts or the whole body) illnesses that can occur in otherwise healthy individuals. Sometimes ‘autoimmune’ is described as “the body attacking itself”- in reality, it is probably some type of dysregulation of the immune system that allows inflammation to happen in areas of the body where it shouldn’t normally. This can be inflammation in the joints (arthritis), in the skin (dermatitis or psoriasis), in the blood vessels (vasculitis) or other various organs, including the kidneys, heart or gastrointestinal tract. When inflammation occurs inside the eye, it is called uveitis.

Women are affected by many autoimmune diseases more often than men. Several important autoimmune diseases that can affect the eye include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), ankylosing spondylitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and Sjögren’s syndrome. These diseases affect the eye in different ways.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SYMPTOMS?

Depending on what part of the eye is affected by inflammation, the symptoms can vary significantly. For instance, patients with rheumatoid arthritis or lupus may suffer from repeated bouts of scleritis – inflammation of the white part of the eye. This causes significant eye redness, pain, and tenderness, but rarely blurred vision. On the other hand, MS is associated with inflammation of the optic nerve, called optic neuritis – patients experience blurred vision usually of one eye and mild pain with eye movements but no eye redness.

Patients with Sjögren’s syndrome suffer from very severe dry eye disease because the immune system destroys the glands that produce the tear film that lubricates the surface of the eye.

Children can also be affected by autoimmune diseases, such as juvenile idiopathic arthritis. This disease is often associated with chronic, anterior uveitis which can often go undiagnosed for a long time, as it rarely causes any symptoms in young children.

HOW CAN AUTOIMMUNE DISEASES BE PREVENTED?

To date, there is no known way to prevent autoimmune disease from occurring. If you have an autoimmune disease that may affect the eye, it is important your provider lets you know the symptoms to look out for in order to receive treatment quickly if they occur. There are many medications that target the immune system that can be very effective in treating inflammation in the eye.

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