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Your Environment. Your Health.

Autoimmune Diseases

Introduction

group of photo of people smiling at the camera

A healthy immune system defends the body against disease and infection. But if the immune system malfunctions, it mistakenly attacks healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Called autoimmune disease, these attacks can affect any part of the body, weakening bodily function and even turning life-threatening.

Scientists know about more than 80 autoimmune diseases. Some are well known, such as type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, while others are rare and difficult to diagnose. With unusual autoimmune diseases, patients may suffer years before getting a proper diagnosis. Most of these diseases have no cure. Some require lifelong treatment to ease symptoms.

infographic with anatomy images describing symptoms

Collectively, these diseases affect more than 24 million people in the United States.1 An additional eight million people have auto-antibodies, blood molecules that indicate a person’s chance of developing autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases are affecting more people for reasons unknown. Likewise, the causes of these diseases remain a mystery.

Studies indicate these diseases likely result from interactions between genetic and environmental factors. Gender, race, and ethnicity characteristics are linked to a likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease.2 Autoimmune diseases are more common when people are in contact with certain environmental exposures, as described below.

What is NIEHS Doing?

Visit the Join an NIEHS Study Website
The following clinical trials are currently recruiting

To volunteer for a study seeking causes of and possible treatments for autoimmune diseases, visit this clinical trials website, and you may find one that addresses your condition.

Unraveling the genetic and environmental underpinnings of autoimmune disease is a focus at NIEHS and the National Toxicology Program (NTP). Progress happens through multiple research efforts, such as:

  • Sunlight associated with autoimmune disease – This NIEHS study suggests exposure to ultraviolet radiation from sunlight may be connected to the development of juvenile dermatomyositis, an autoimmune disease associated with muscle weakness and skin rashes.3
  • Childhood poverty linked to rheumatoid arthritis in adulthood – NIEHS researchers discovered a link between lower socioeconomic status in childhood and rheumatoid arthritis in adulthood. The effect of lower childhood socioeconomic status and lower adult education level equaled the combined effect of having both a paternal and personal history of smoking.4
  • Agricultural chemicals and rheumatoid arthritis – Researchers at NIEHS found that exposure to some pesticides may play a role in the development of rheumatoid arthritis in male farm workers.5
  • Organic mercury may trigger autoimmune disease – In a study funded by NIEHS, methylmercury, even at exposure levels generally considered safe, may be linked to development of autoimmune antibodies in women of reproductive age. These antibodies could lead in turn to autoimmune diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis.6
  • Genetic factors in autoimmune muscle disease – NIEHS researchers identified the primary genetic risk factors associated with autoimmune muscle disease in Caucasian populations in Europe and the United States.7
  • Gene-environment interaction in rheumatoid arthritis – A study funded by NIEHS pinpointed the mechanics of a gene-environment interaction that could explain why the genetic risk for rheumatoid arthritis is amplified by environmental pollutants like cigarette smoke.8
  • Role of nutrition in development of autoimmune disease – NIEHS-funded research indicates that vitamin D may be important for preventing immune dysfunction in older populations.9  Another study funded by NIEHS found that dietary micronutrients could either improve or worsen lupus symptoms.10

Further Reading

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)

Additional Resources

Related Health Topics


  1. NIH Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee: Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research, March 2005. (Last accessed July 19, 2019). [Abstract NIH Autoimmune Diseases Coordinating Committee: Progress in Autoimmune Diseases Research, March 2005. (Last accessed July 19, 2019).]
  2. Ramos PS, Shedlock AM, Langefeld, CD. 2015. Genetics of autoimmune diseases: insights from population genetics. J Hum Genet. 60(11): 657–664. [Abstract Ramos PS, Shedlock AM, Langefeld, CD. 2015. Genetics of autoimmune diseases: insights from population genetics. J Hum Genet. 60(11): 657–664.]
  3. Shah M, Targoff, IN, Rice MM, Miller FW, Rider LG, Childhood Myositis Heterogeneity Collaborative Study Group. 2013. Ultraviolet radiation exposure is associated with clinical and autoantibody phenotypes in juvenile myositis. Arthritis Rheum. 65(7): 1934–1941. [Abstract Shah M, Targoff, IN, Rice MM, Miller FW, Rider LG, Childhood Myositis Heterogeneity Collaborative Study Group. 2013. Ultraviolet radiation exposure is associated with clinical and autoantibody phenotypes in juvenile myositis. Arthritis Rheum. 65(7): 1934–1941.]
  4. Parks CG, D’Aloisio AA, DeRoo LA, Huiber K, Rider LG, Miller FW, Dale DP. 2013. Childhood socioeconomic factors and perinatal characteristics influence development of rheumatoid arthritis in adulthood. Ann Rheum Dis. 72(3): 350–356. [Abstract Parks CG, D’Aloisio AA, DeRoo LA, Huiber K, Rider LG, Miller FW, Dale DP. 2013. Childhood socioeconomic factors and perinatal characteristics influence development of rheumatoid arthritis in adulthood. Ann Rheum Dis. 72(3): 350–356.]
  5. Meyer A, Sandler DP, Beane Freeman LE, Hofmann JN, Parks CG. 2017. Pesticide exposure and risk of rheumatoid arthritis among licensed male pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Environ Health Perspect 125(7): 077010. [Abstract Meyer A, Sandler DP, Beane Freeman LE, Hofmann JN, Parks CG. 2017. Pesticide exposure and risk of rheumatoid arthritis among licensed male pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Environ Health Perspect 125(7): 077010.]
  6. Somers EC, Ganser MA, Warren JS, Basu N, Wang L, Zick SM, and Park SK. 2015. Mercury exposure and antinuclear antibodies among females of reproductive age in the United States: NHANES. Environ Health Perspect 123(8): 792–798. [Abstract Somers EC, Ganser MA, Warren JS, Basu N, Wang L, Zick SM, and Park SK. 2015. Mercury exposure and antinuclear antibodies among females of reproductive age in the United States: NHANES. Environ Health Perspect 123(8): 792–798.]
  7. Miller FW, Chen W, Terrance P. O’Hanlon TP, Cooper RG, Vencovsky J, Rider LG, Danko K, Wedderburn LR, Lundberg IE, Pachman LM, Reed AM, Ytterberg SR, Padyukov L, Selva-O'Callaghan A, Radstake TR, Isenberg DA, Chinoy H, Ollier WE, Scheet P, Peng B, Lee A, Byun J, Lamb JA, Gregersen PK, Amos CI, Myositis Genetics Consortium. 2015. Genome-wide association study identifies HLA 8.1 ancestral haplotype alleles as major genetic risk factors for myositis phenotypes. Genes Immun. 16(7):470–480. [Abstract Miller FW, Chen W, Terrance P. O’Hanlon TP, Cooper RG, Vencovsky J, Rider LG, Danko K, Wedderburn LR, Lundberg IE, Pachman LM, Reed AM, Ytterberg SR, Padyukov L, Selva-O'Callaghan A, Radstake TR, Isenberg DA, Chinoy H, Ollier WE, Scheet P, Peng B, Lee A, Byun J, Lamb JA, Gregersen PK, Amos CI, Myositis Genetics Consortium. 2015. Genome-wide association study identifies HLA 8.1 ancestral haplotype alleles as major genetic risk factors for myositis phenotypes. Genes Immun. 16(7):470–480.]
  8. Fu J, Nogueira SV, Drongelen VV, Coit P, Ling S, Rosloniec EF, Sawalha AH, Holoshitz J. 2018. Shared epitope-aryl hydrocarbon receptor crosstalk underlies the mechanism of gene-environment interaction in autoimmune arthritis. PNAS 115(18):4755-4760. [Abstract Fu J, Nogueira SV, Drongelen VV, Coit P, Ling S, Rosloniec EF, Sawalha AH, Holoshitz J. 2018. Shared epitope-aryl hydrocarbon receptor crosstalk underlies the mechanism of gene-environment interaction in autoimmune arthritis. PNAS 115(18):4755-4760.]
  9. Meier HC, Sandler DP, Simonsick EM, Parks CG. 2016. Association between vitamin D deficiency and antinuclear antibodies in middle-aged and older U.S. adults. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 25(12):1559-1563. [Abstract Meier HC, Sandler DP, Simonsick EM, Parks CG. 2016. Association between vitamin D deficiency and antinuclear antibodies in middle-aged and older U.S. adults. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 25(12):1559-1563.]
  10. Strickland FM, Hewagama A, Wu A, Sawalha AH, Delaney C, Hoeltzel MF, Yung R, Johnson K, Mickelson B, Richardson BC. 2013. Arthritis Rheum. 65(7):1872–1881. Diet influences expression of autoimmune associated genes and disease severity by epigenetic mechanisms in a transgenic lupus model. [Abstract Strickland FM, Hewagama A, Wu A, Sawalha AH, Delaney C, Hoeltzel MF, Yung R, Johnson K, Mickelson B, Richardson BC. 2013. Arthritis Rheum. 65(7):1872–1881. Diet influences expression of autoimmune associated genes and disease severity by epigenetic mechanisms in a transgenic lupus model.]

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