What They Are
A group of diseases that occur when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body. Common autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Graves’ disease and Hashimoto’s disease, which attack the thyroid gland. Scientists think these conditions occur when a virus or something else in the environment “turns on” a gene that causes the body to attack itself.
Who Gets It
Some 15 percent of the U.S. population suffers from an autoimmune disease; more than 75 percent of those affected are women.
Symptoms vary depending on the disease, but most autoimmune conditions affect multiple body organs.
How They're Diagnosed/Detected
Autoimmune diseases often are first diagnosed during a woman’s childbearing years. A range of tests exists to detect the various conditions, but many can be diagnosed with a blood test.
How It Affects Fertility (And Pregnancy)
Medical experts disagree about the extent to which autoimmune diseases affect fertility, but these conditions can make getting pregnant and having a healthy baby more complicated than usual. In some women, the immune system may attack sperm or the embryo and increase the risk of miscarriage.
Medications are available to keep most autoimmune diseases in check, though the degree of control varies with the type and severity of the disease.
With extra planning, women with an autoimmune disease can have a healthy conception and pregnancy. Because medications such as steroids and methotrexate taken to control these illnesses can be hazardous for the developing fetus, a woman hoping to get pregnant must go off the drugs and try to conceive before symptoms flare. She needs to work closely with her doctor to optimize the window for conception and perhaps turn to fertility treatments more quickly if pregnancy does not occur.
An autoimmune condition gets worse in only about a third of pregnancies. In the rest, it either stays the same or actually improves. If a flare does occur, it generally doesn’t threaten the baby, although it can be a delicate matter to choose medications that will treat a woman’s symptoms without harming the fetus.
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