Is Atopic Dermatitis an Autoimmune Disease?
Atopic dermatitis (eczema) is a common skin condition. It causes rashes, inflammation, and redness of the skin. We still do not know exactly what causes atopic dermatitis. However, it has many similarities to a class of diseases called autoimmune diseases.1
What is an autoimmune disease?
Autoimmune diseases are caused by the body’s own immune system. Our immune systems help keep us safe from foreign invaders like germs. But for some people, the immune system cannot tell the difference between harmful invaders and healthy cells. Because it cannot tell the difference, the body begins to attack and damage healthy cells.2
Some common autoimmune diseases include:1,3
- Multiple sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Celiac disease
- Hashimoto's disease
- Graves’ disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
The role of the immune system in eczema
Eczema has some similarities to autoimmune diseases. However, it is not classified as an autoimmune disease. The symptoms of eczema are caused by inflammation. An overactive immune system does contribute to this inflammation. Some research shows an immune reaction to harmless allergens may cause this inflammation. But we still do not fully understand how the immune system impacts eczema.3,4
The difference between eczema and autoimmune diseases is that the immune system and inflammation are not the only causes. Eczema is also caused by a disruption to the skin barrier. Plus, the immune system does not attack a specific part of the body in people with eczema. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks the body’s joints.3,4
Research on the immune system in eczema
Eczema is not officially an autoimmune disease. However, many researchers are studying the link between eczema and the immune system. We do not fully understand this relationship yet. Understanding this relationship may help improve the treatment and management of eczema.5-7
One potential link that researchers have studied is the number of people who have eczema and an autoimmune disease. These studies show that people with eczema are more likely to have an autoimmune disease than the general public. They also may be more likely to have more than one autoimmune disease.5-7
One study found that people with eczema are about twice as likely to have an autoimmune disease. Researchers do not know yet why this is the case. But it may help identify the role of the immune system in eczema.5-7
If you are concerned about autoimmune diseases, tell your doctor about your medical history with eczema. Diagnosing any potential autoimmune diseases can be challenging. Knowledge of your eczema may make diagnosing them easier.
Immune-specific treatment for eczema
Another link between autoimmune diseases and eczema is treatment. Biologics are a promising type of drug that are used to treat many conditions, including autoimmune diseases. They may also be used to treat serious eczema in some adults.1
Biologics to treat eczema are given as an injection under the skin. They work by blocking specific functions of the immune system that are involved in the disease. This can help manage symptoms.1
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