Skip to main content
Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
OxPARC

This site is best viewed with a modern browser. You appear to be using an old version of Internet Explorer.

Autoimmunity

What is autoimmunity?

Autoimmunity is the process behind inflammatory diseases.

The immune system is present to protect us. In autoimmunity is becomes confused and auto reacts. This means it attacks the body, such as the joints in arthritis, without specific cause.

The immune system is a complex network of cells, proteins and chemical reactions that protect us from infection by viruses and bacteria. It also helps with other processes such as healing. Components of the immune system include white cells (called lymphocytes and neutrophils), and proteins (such as immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies, and complement).

In autoimmunity, these cells and proteins attack a part of the body as though it were an infection. Because there is no infection it cannot be cleared and the immune reaction continues to act indefinitely or until the balances and checks of the immune system come into place.

These balances and checks are in constant adjustment. In autoimmunity they are sometimes effective at controlling inflammation at other times they are not. This is why inflammation occurs in waves or flares.

It is important to remember these natural flares and troughs in disease activity when judging the effectiveness of a treatment. It is also important to mention flares when telling others (such as school teachers) about the condition. This is because the appearance and disappearance of inflammation can be confusing to those who are not familiar with autoimmunity or inflammatory diseases.

Who is most likely to have autoimmunity?

Autoimmunity happens in us all. At low levels it helps to make the immune system more effective and stronger. In people with inflammatory diseases this autoimmunity is not controlled and causes harm.

Why some people should have excess autoimmunity is not entirely clear. It is likely they have risk factors in their genetic make up. But it is only when there are environmental triggers, such as a minor infection, that this risk factor will be converted into a autoimmune / inflammatory disease.

Can it be cured?

Because the immune system is so complex, it has been too difficult to identify a cure…so far.

This is not to say our medicines do not help. Far from it. The medicines we use target certain cells or proteins to reduce inflammation, pain and loss of function. These anti-inflammatory (or immunomodulatory) drugs reduce the number of flares and the severity of each flare.

In some patients, anti-inflammatory drugs put the inflammation into remission for long periods of time - sometimes indefinitely. In most cases they prevent damage to the tissues in the long term.