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Autoimmune Diseases in Women

What are they?

The autoimmune diseases (also called rheumatoid diseases) are chronic, systemic illnesses that affect the whole body. They result from an attack by the patient’s immune system upon some parts of his or her own body. These diseases cause a lot of inflammation and destruction of cells in the tissues they attack. This destruction has very serious health consequences. Depending on which disease the patient has, bones, nerves, glands, and other important organs can be destroyed. Some of the more-prevalent autoimmune diseases-rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren’s Syndrome, systemic lupus erythematosus, and multiple sclerosis-are associated with serious eye symptoms. Most of the autoimmune diseases are gender-associated, and are usually much more common in women. For example, of the million or so Sjögren’s sufferers in the U.S., 90% are women. (Another of the autoimmune diseases, type-1 or insulin-dependent diabetes, causes complications in the eye; it is covered separately as diabetic retinopathy.)

What are some of the symptoms?

We will not mention any non-eye symptoms here. For this information, see the websites listed at the bottom of this section. Sjögren’s syndrome is the autoimmune disease that causes the most eye-related disease. Patients suffer from very severe dry eye syndrome because the immune system destroys the glands that produce the tear film that lubricates the surface of the eye.

All of the autoimmune diseases listed above (multiple sclerosis (MS), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Sjögren’s) can be associated with optic nerve inflammation (optic neuritis), vasculitis in the eye, uveitis, and retinopathy. In fact, the first symptom of MS is often temporary blurring or loss of vision, usually in one eye. These symptoms are due to the inflammation caused by these diseases.

How can autoimmune diseases be prevented?

To date, medical science knows of no way to prevent the autoimmune diseases, or their eye manifestations, from occurring. You must be under the care of a specialist, if you have any of the autoimmune diseases, so that flare-ups, in the eye and elsewhere, can be controlled as much as possible.

Where can I get more information?

For general information about rheumatoid diseases, and their progression and treatment, go to the website of the American Autoimmune-related Diseases Association (AARDA).

There are also good sites dealing with specific autoimmune diseases and the ways they affect the eye:

The Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation

The Lupus Foundation of America