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How autoimmune diseases can damage your skin, hair and nails.

The first thing to understand about an autoimmune disorder is that something in your immune system went amiss. Research shows that over eighty disorders are caused by a faulty immune system attack on healthy tissues and organs. Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, including the brain, heart, thyroid, pancreas, digestive tract, lungs, joints, blood vessels, lungs, skin, eyes, nerves, muscles or kidneys. The symptoms of an autoimmune disease can mimic those of other acute illnesses, so it is imperative to work with your doctor or dermatologist to determine an official diagnosis early on.

Here are some of the more common types of autoimmune diseases:

  • Psoriasis - Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that speeds up the growth of skin cells, which results in inflamed patches. Scalp psoriasis often occurs on the forehead but can spread to the hair causing silvery scales. Since skin lesions traditionally precede joint symptoms, your dermatologist is in a unique position to help treat your psoriasis as well as identify psoriatic arthritis before irreversible joint damage occurs. Those who suffer from psoriasis can live a full and active life with the right management strategies to restore skin health.

  • Vitiligo - Vitiligo is a condition in which your skin loses melanin. The autoimmune disease occurs when the cells that produce melanin are destroyed and no longer form the pigment that determines the colour of your skin, hair and eyes. It affects all races, but may be more noticeable in those with darker skin, as small areas of pigment loss spread with time. Dermatologic treatments can help slow the progression and restore some colour to affected areas of skin.

  • Lupus - No two cases of lupus are exactly alike, as symptoms may come on slowly or develop suddenly, however, a butterfly-shaped rash on a person's face that crosses the bridge of the nose and covers both cheeks is a tale-tell symptomatic effect. People with lupus often have excessively thick or rough nail folds and cuticles with spots or hyperpigmentation. Since lupus affects different parts of your life, it is important to work closely with your healthcare provider for personalised treatments and care.

  • Alopecia - For unknown reasons, the body's immune system disrupts normal hair formation by mistakenly attacking an enzyme produced by the hair follicles. This damage leads to smooth, roundish patches of hair loss. Some patients have alternating patterns of hair loss followed by spontaneous growth. People's reactions vary but you may simply prefer to let your baldness run its course untreated. Not all alopecia sufferers have nail problems, but it is common for nails to crumble, become spoon-shaped, or have a spotty or red lunula.

  • Autoimmune Arthritis - An early diagnosis of autoimmune arthritis like rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis allows for better treatment options and can help control damaging inflammation to slow the progression of the disease. Rheumatoid nodules are firm lumps typically seen under the skin of the hands, heels and elbows. Nodules can cluster or appear alone and the skin above can become infected or ulcerative. Psoriatic arthritis can affect the feet and toes causing the toenails to thicken and separate from the nail bed.

  • Hashimoto's Disease - Hashimoto's disease is the most common cause of low thyroid-hormone production. The butterfly-shaped gland located in the front of the neck regulates many metabolic activities but reduced hormone production can result in hair loss and a puffy face as well as crumbling, splitting, thinning or spoon-shaped nails. You are more likely to develop Hashimoto's disease if you already have another autoimmune disorder, but overall the disease is eight times more likely to affect women than men.

  • Multiple Sclerosis - Most symptoms of multiple sclerosis are a result of autoimmune damage to the brain, spinal cord and nerves, including skin conditions like tingling, itching, numbness and painful dysesthesia. The sensation of burning pain and sensitivity to touch most often occurs on the skin of the legs but some MS patients also complain of painful numbness in the fingertips and feet.

Unfortunately, symptoms of these autoimmune disorders do not follow a set pattern. Each condition can be mild, moderate or severe and may or may not affect the same areas of the body. Moreover, you can be affected by one or several autoimmune disorders.

Although autoimmune diseases cannot be prevented, early recognition and treatment can be crucial for leading a healthier and fuller life.

This article is intended to inform and give insight but not treat, diagnose or replace the advice of a doctor. Always seek medical advice with any questions regarding a medical condition.

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