March is Autoimmune Awareness Month, an opportunity to educate people about autoimmune diseases. To help raise awareness, we take a look at autoimmune diseases, why they occur, available treatments, and some lifestyle suggestions for managing symptoms.

Top facts

The general public knows relatively little about autoimmune diseases. A few facts that awareness month is trying to promote are:

  • Autoimmune diseases affect about 5% of people, and are among the most important chronic health problems in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Aside from Scleroderma, there are more than 100 diseases, including Crohn’s disease and celiac diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and Addison’s disease.
  • Autoimmune diseases ‘cluster’ in families. For example, if your grandmother had lupus, you could be at greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
  • They affect women 75% more often than men.

What is an autoimmune disease?

The body uses the immune system to protect itself from harmful things such as bacteria and viruses. It also ‘remembers’ how to fight the same infection again to prevent you from getting sick.

With an overactive immune system, the body starts to attack healthy cells and tissues as if they were harmful. This is known as autoimmune disease.

Nobody is sure why it happens, and there is nothing you can do to prevent getting it. You cannot ‘catch’ it from other people.

Scleroderma is a non-specific-organ autoimmune condition, meaning it causes problems throughout the body rather than focusing on one organ.

How are autoimmune diseases treated?

There are several ways to reduce symptoms, but currently, there is no definite cure. Some medications include:

  • Pain relievers (analgesics)
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Corticosteroids
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs).

Health professionals are essential for treating autoimmune disease. They include:

  • Health educators, to help you understand your illness and management
  • Physical and occupational therapists, to increase joint and muscle movement.
  • Dieticians, to help you with understanding food and the best diet
  • Speech therapists, to help with swallowing
  • A psychologist or counsellor, to help maintain a positive outlook.

What lifestyle changes can I make?

You can manage autoimmune disease with the help of doctors, medications and lifestyle changes. Some of these include:

  • Learning as much as you can about your illness
  • Seeing your doctors regularly to monitor treatments
  • Protecting yourself from the sun and extremes of weather
  • Using lotions to help soothe skin rashes
  • Exercising to strengthen muscles and keep joints flexible
  • Getting plenty of rest, especially after periods of activity
  • Seeking advice from a dietician to learn about foods that can help you
  • Avoiding high levels of sugars, salt and fats
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Paying attention to what your body is telling you.

Raising awareness

Ultimately, the aim is to fund enough research to find a cure for autoimmune disease. Raising awareness is an essential part of that. We can all help by sharing our stories and experiences during this awareness month.

If you would like more information about becoming a scleroderma member, please visit our website.