While similar, the root causes of autoinflammatory and autoimmune diseases are different. Autoimmune diseases are characterized by a malfunction in the acquired immune system, which develops as you grow. While autoinflammatory diseases are due to a malfunction in the innate immune system.

Autoinflammatory diseases are a fairly new category of disease. Proposed at the start of the 21st century, they are categorized as a malfunctioning of the immune system. Symptoms of these diseases consist of ongoing fevers, joint pain, muscle swelling, rashes, and abdominal pain. They are also known as periodic fever syndromes.

Autoinflammatory diseases are rare and largely unheard of except by those suffering from them along with their close family and friends. Still, the prevalence of these diseases is growing as more autoimmune conditions are recategorized as autoinflammatory. That being said, there are a lot of misconceptions and myths about this new category of disease.

Due to their rarity and lack of attention, many people are unaware of autoinflammatory diseases. In this article, you’ll learn the basics of autoinflammatory diseases and five common myths about them.

What are Autoinflammatory Diseases?

Autoinflammatory diseases start with your immune system. Your immune system consists of a network of cells and tissues throughout your body that work together to defend you from viruses, bacteria, and infection. It tries to identify, kill, and eliminate the invaders that might hurt you.

An autoinflammatory disease is a malfunction in the innate (or inborn) immune system, which uses white blood cells instead of antibodies to destroy invaders.

Immune cells target the body’s own healthy tissues by mistake, signaling the body to attack them. This can cause intense episodes of inflammation that result in such symptoms as fever, rash, or joint swelling.

Gene mutations cause most autoinflammatory diseases. They generally start in childhood and will continue into adulthood.

Autoinflammatory Disease Versus Autoimmune Disease

Often, autoinflammatory diseases are mistaken for autoimmune diseases. While similar, there are a few differences between the two. Most importantly, the root cause of the diseases are different. This difference affects treatment options, long-term health risks, and possible complications from systemic inflammation.

For example, autoimmune diseases are characterized by a malfunction in the acquired (or adaptive) immune system, which develops as you grow. Invaders provoke your body into producing antibodies so that your body “remembers” those invaders. Your body can then fight them if they come back.

On the other hand, autoinflammatory diseases are due to a malfunction of the innate immune system. It may be activated by triggers, but in some autoinflammatory diseases, the genetic mutation causing the disease makes certain danger sensors in cells become frequently, or even continuously, activated.

Symptoms of Autoinflammatory Diseases

The most common symptom of an autoinflammatory disease is recurrent fever, hence the name periodic fever syndrome.

Here are other common symptoms associated with an autoinflammatory disease:

  • Joint swelling
  • Rashes
  • Bone pain
  • Inflammation in the eye
  • Vomiting
  • Inflammation in the abdominal cavity
  • Inflammation around the heart
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Mouth or genital sores
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Five Common Misconceptions About Autoinflammatory Diseases

Most autoinflammatory diseases are known to be genetic conditions with a gene identified as involved in causing the symptoms. However, not all factors that may be involved in triggering flares or all the genes involved are known. Additionally, the unpredictability and frequency of the symptoms and flares can cause great psychological stress and challenges for those who suffer from them.

To shed some light on all the questions surrounding these diseases, here are the answers to five misconceptions people often have about autoinflammatory conditions.

1. Symptoms are Contagious

Symptoms of autoinflammatory diseases can be scary, especially if your child is the one suffering from them. It’s important to note that the rash, mouth ulcers, fever, conjunctivitis, and all other symptoms of autoinflammatory diseases are never contagious. They are produced by the individual’s immune system and cannot be spread to anyone else.

2. It Must be an Allergy

Unfortunately, patients who suffer from an autoinflammatory disease are not causing their symptoms due to any lifestyle factors. The root cause of their symptoms is a genetic mutation that was likely passed down from their parents.

Of course, there can be lifestyle factors that trigger the disease or the symptoms to flare up, such as stress or trauma.

One common misconception is that their symptoms are due to a food allergy. Some people may have allergies or intolerances in addition to their autoinflammatory condition. They may also have gastrointestinal symptoms as part of their condition. Sometimes controlling their allergies and GI symptoms may provide relief from those individual symptoms. But, it does not cure or treat their autoinflammatory disease.

3. You Need to Build Your Immunity

On the contrary, someone with an autoinflammatory disease has an immune system that is too active, not underactive. Your innate immune system often overreacts, causing your symptoms of recurrent fevers. The innate immune system is ready at all times to tackle any virus, bacteria, or any suspected offender to the body.

4. Maybe It’s a Virus

Sometimes a virus can trigger a flare, however, symptoms of an autoinflammatory disease are nothing like that of a common virus. For example, autoinflammatory diseases are systemic inflammatory diseases that affect the entire body, and fever is just one sign that the body is in a state of overall inflammation.

5. There are No Treatment Options

All of the various autoinflammatory diseases have treatment options. Some of them have FDA-approved medications while others have “off-label” medications that are still in the process of being developed but are approved for that specific disease.

Additionally, while the root cause is a genetic mutation that can not be changed, lifestyle factors can impact a patient's quality of life. Maintaining an anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet and managing stress levels can go a long way in helping someone with an autoinflammatory disease cope with their symptoms. Physical therapy and treating gastrointestinal disorders may also help ease the symptoms of an autoinflammatory disease.

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