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Autoimmune Diseases in Children

Autoimmune Diseases in Children

Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatic fever and systemic lupus erythematosus are some of the most common autoimmune diseases in children. Scroll down to find out more about the common pediatric autoimmune diseases.
Smita Pandit
The human body comprises various organ systems that are interdependent on each other for the proper functioning of the human body. The human body also has its own protective mechanism, which is referred to as the 'immune system'. The immune system gets activated in event of a perceived threat to the structures within the body.
Various specialized cells and tissues work collectively in order to facilitate immune responses in event of an attack by pathogens, environmental irritants or anything that the immune system perceives to be a threat. The immune system responds by producing substances called antibodies in order to defend the body from substances that it identifies as 'foreign invaders'. However, problems arise when the immune system is unable to differentiate the body's own cells from the foreign invaders.
One is diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when the antibodies that are supposed to fight infections and diseases, start targeting the body's own cells. What triggers such a faulty immune response is not known, but it is believed that genetic predisposition is one of the main risk factors. Autoimmune conditions can affect children as well as adults. Given below is some information on the common autoimmune diseases in children.
Common Autoimmune Diseases that May Affect Children
Autoimmune diseases could be localized or systemic in nature. Systemic autoimmune diseases can affect many parts of the body whereas the localized autoimmune disorders affect a particular organ or a part of the body. The exact causes of such disorders are unknown, and there is no complete cure for most of these conditions, however, the autoimmune disease symptoms can be managed with the help of drug therapy.
Symptomatic approach may also be followed for the treatment of these diseases. As mentioned earlier, those affected by autoimmune conditions can be from any age group. Though more than 80 autoimmune diseases figure in the list of autoimmune diseases, there are a few autoimmune disorders that commonly affect children. Given below are some of these conditions.
Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis
Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that can affect children who fall in the age group of six months to sixteen years. This condition is characterized by symptoms such as joint pain, swelling, redness and stiffness of the affected joints. This condition is classified into pauciarticular, polyarticular and systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
While pauciarticular juvenile rheumatoid arthritis doesn't affect more than four joints, polyarticular juvenile rheumatoid arthritis may affect five or more joints. Systemic juvenile rheumatoid arthritis affects the body systems and may cause inflammation of joints, connective tissues and organs as well.
Rheumatic Fever
Rheumatic fever is a disease wherein various connective tissues of the body may get inflamed. It is believed that a delay in the diagnosis and treatment of an infection caused by Streptococcus bacteria may trigger rheumatic fever in children. The child may develop rheumatic fever symptoms 4-5 weeks after the onset of bacterial infection. Since fever, joint swelling and pain are common signs of this condition, it is referred to as rheumatic fever.
It is believed that the delayed autoimmune response to the bacteria or the development of autoantibodies may affect various parts of the body. Inflammation of the lining of the heart, arrhythmia and rheumatic heart disease are some of the serious complications of this disease.
Celiac Disease
This is another autoimmune disease that affects children. It is the consumption of gluten that triggers an autoimmune response in children. Celiac disease is characterized by the inflammation of the lining of the small intestine. This condition affects the intestine's ability to absorb nutrients, which in turn, may affect the child's growth. The inability to digest certain foods, may make them susceptible to nutritional deficiencies. In severe cases, the child's growth would be stunted, and his/her bones may become weak.
Lupus
Lupus is another autoimmune condition that can even affect infants. In newborns, this condition is medically referred to as neonatal lupus. Systematic lupus erythematosus is the most common form of this condition that can affect various vital organs, joints and cause inflammation in various parts of the body. The exact cause of this disease is not known, but it is believed that genetic factors or environmental factors may play a role. It is believed that use of certain drugs may also induce the production of autoantibodies.
Autoimmune Thyroid Diseases
Graves' disease and Hashimoto's thyroiditis are both localized autoimmune diseases where autoantibodies target the thyroid gland, and affect the secretion of the thyroid hormones. Since thyroid hormones play a vital role in the growth and development, autoimmune thyroid diseases can have serious repercussions on a child's health.
In case of children suffering from Hashimoto's thyroiditis, the autoantibodies that target the thyroid cells give rise to hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is characterized by an inadequate secretion of the thyroid hormones. On the other hand, Graves' disease is characterized by the enlargement of the thyroid gland along with excessive secretion of the thyroid hormones.
This was some information on the common autoimmune diseases that may affect children. Symptoms of the autoimmune condition one may be suffering from, would vary depending on the part of the body that is targeted by the autoantibodies. As mentioned earlier, the treatment of autoimmune conditions involves the use of immunosuppressants or immune-modifying drugs. Most of the autoimmune diseases in children as well as adults are chronic, and cannot be completely cured, however, these can be managed with the help of drug therapy or other treatment options.