The human body reacts in many different ways to autoimmune diseases—conditions where the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. Depending on the condition you might have, an autoimmune disease can affect a variety of body areas, including joints, muscles, and organs. Autoimmune diseases also commonly affect the skin.
There are many different types of autoimmune skin conditions, and each is unique in the type of symptoms they cause, their specific causes and risk factors, and how they are diagnosed and treated. Here is what you need to know about autoimmune skin disease types, symptoms, causes, and treatment.
Types of Autoimmune Skin Conditions
There are many different types of autoimmune skin diseases and they are caused by the immune system attacking healthy skin cells.
Psoriasis causes the immune system to become overactive and speed up skin cell growth. Skin cells will build up in layers of red plaques covered in white scales. Plaques can build up anywhere on the body, but they most often occur on the scalp, low back, elbows, and knees.
The condition tends to run in families, and it is not unusual for multiple family members to have it. In 2013, psoriasis affected 7.4 million American adults and that number continues to grow.
Psoriasis usually appears in early adulthood, but it can affect anyone regardless of age. For most people, psoriasis affects only a few body areas. Severe psoriasis can cover large areas of the body. Skin plaques from psoriasis will heal and then come back at various times throughout your life.
Scleroderma is a connective tissue disease characterized by thickening and hardening of the skin. Connective tissue is the tissue that connects, supports, and separates all types of body tissues. Scleroderma is either localized or systemic.
With localized scleroderma, the disease affects mostly the skin, but it can also affect bones and muscles. Systemic scleroderma affects more than skin, bones, and muscles—it may involve the internal organs, including the heart, lungs, digestive tract, kidneys, and more. The severity and outcome of scleroderma differ from person to person.
According to the Scleroderma Foundation, it is estimated up to 300,000 Americans live with scleroderma, and a third of them have systemic scleroderma. Men and women are both at risk, but women account for 80% of the cases.
While the disease can affect anyone regardless of age, systemic scleroderma is typically diagnosed between ages 30 to 50, and localized scleroderma shows up before age 40.
Lupus of the Skin
Cutaneous lupus—also called skin lupus—is an autoimmune skin condition where the immune system attacks healthy skin cells and damages the skin. Skin symptoms include redness, itching, pain, and scarring.
According to The Lupus Foundation of America, approximately two-thirds of people with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE lupus) will develop cutaneous lupus. Cutaneous lupus also occurs on its own. SLE Lupus is the most serious type of lupus affecting the joints, brain, kidneys, heart, blood vessels, and more.
While cutaneous lupus cannot be cured, it can be effectively treated. Treatment includes medications, skin protection, and lifestyle changes.
Dermatomyositis is an autoimmune disorder that primarily affects muscles, but it also affects the skin. It is related to polymyositis, another autoimmune disorder that causes muscle weakness, soreness, and stiffness. People with these types of muscle disorders may also have difficulty swallowing and shortness of breath.
Dermatomyositis and polymyositis share similar symptoms, but dermatomyositis is distinguishable by a skin rash that usually appears on the upper part of the body. Dermatomyositis also causes thickening and tightening of the skin and purplish colored eyelids.
The childhood form of dermatomyositis is different than the adult form. Juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM) causes fever, fatigue, rash, and muscle weakness. Most causes of JDM start between age 5 to age 10, and JDM affects twice as many girls as it does boys.
Behcet’s disease is a rare disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body. The condition causes mouth sores, eye inflammation, skin rashes, and genital lesions.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, Behcet’s disease affects 7 per 100,000 people in the United States. It is much more prevalent around the world. Anyone can develop Behcet’s disease at any age, but symptoms often start between ages 20 and 30.
Behcet’s severity varies from person to person. Symptoms can come and go and people with the condition may experience periods of remission (where the disease stops or slows down) and periods of a flare-up (high disease activity). While the condition cannot be cured, various treatments can help to manage it.
Ocular Cicatricial Pemphigoid
Ocular cicatricial pemphigoid (OCP) is a rare autoimmune disease that affects both the skin and the mucous membrane of the eyes, especially the conjunctiva—the clear tissue that covers the white part of the eyes and the inside of the eyelids.
People with OCP will develop blistering of their skin and scarring of the conjunctiva. Blisters are painful and oozing and can develop on the skin, mouth, nose, intestinal tract, eyes, and genitals.
With OCP, the white blood cells attack the skin and mucous membranes. People with the condition may have more than one skin site and both eyes might be affected.
OCP is a systemic autoimmune disease and it needs to be treated long-term. It is treated with medications to calm down the immune system and stop or slow down the autoimmune process. Treatment is important so the condition doesn’t cause conjunctiva scarring and vision loss.
Pemphigus is an autoimmune skin disease that causes blisters or bumps filled with pus. These blisters often develop on the skin, but they can also appear in the mucous membranes. Pemphigus blisters can be painful, swollen, and itchy.
Pemphigus can affect anyone of any age, but it is mostly diagnosed in people ages 40–60. It is rare in children.
Pemphigus can be life-threatening if left untreated. Treatment, most commonly with corticosteroids, can manage the condition.
There are many forms of epidermolysis bullosa, but only one is autoimmune— epidermolysis bullosa acquisita (EBA). All forms of the condition will cause fluid-filled blisters to develop in response to injuries that usually wouldn’t cause a reaction.
EBA causes blisters on the hands and the feet as well as in the mucous membranes. Diagnosing this condition can be a challenge, but a distinguishing characteristic of EBA is that it affects adults in their 30s and 40s.
An underlying cause of EBA is unknown. However, researchers think a genetic component may be involved because the condition can affect several members of a family.
Bullous pemphigoid is a rare autoimmune skin condition that causes large, fluid blisters. These blisters often develop on the arms, legs, torso, and in the mouth.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, bullous pemphigoid mostly affects people over age 60, but it can also appear in younger people. It tends to be more common in the Western world and affects men and women equally.
Bullous pemphigoid occurs when the immune system attacks the thin layer of skin tissue just below the outer layer. Sometimes, the condition goes away on its own, but it could also take many years to resolve.
Treatment can help heal blisters, ease itching, reduce skin inflammation, and suppress the immune system. But bullous pemphigoid can be life-threatening, especially in older people who have health problems.
Autoimmune Skin Condition Symptoms
The skin is the largest organ of your body. It serves as a protective barrier to the body against trauma. It also helps with many body functions like regulating your internal body temperature.
While the skin is made up of five distinct layers of skin, and the two top ones are most often affected by autoimmune skin diseases. The top layer is called the epidermis and it is the outermost layer. The underlying layer is the dermis and it contains vital cells, tissues, and structures.
These two layers are held together with proteins and other structures. When there is a separation of the two layers, blisters may form. These blisters can be small or large and contain fluid that contains dead or damaged skin.
Some blisters result from injury to the skin. With autoimmune skin diseases, blisters form because the body has created antibodies that attack proteins required for skin health and function. Sometimes, blisters can break open and become open sores.
In other autoimmune skin diseases, lesions can also form on mucous membranes—the esophagus, throat, inside of the mouth and nasal pathways, the genitals, and anus. Blisters can also cause gastrointestinal bleeding and problems with swallowing and breathing.
Conditions like psoriasis cause an overgrowth of skin cells that pile up on the surface of the skin. These plaques can burn, sting, and itch.
Other symptoms of autoimmune skin diseases include:
- Chronic fatigue
- Skin inflammation (swelling)
- Small patches of red, scaly skin
- Skin scarring
- Dry, cracked skin that may bleed or itch
- Thickened, pitted, and ridged nails
- Stiff and swollen joints
Autoimmune skin diseases occur because the body’s immune system attacks its own healthy tissues. The immune system would normally produce antibodies—proteins that react against bacteria, viruses, and toxins.
When these antibodies attack healthy tissues, they are called autoantibodies. With autoimmune skin conditions, autoantibodies attack skin cells or collagen tissues. Exact reasons for why the immune system malfunctions in autoimmune skin diseases are unknown.
Researchers link a variety of triggers for the development of these conditions, including ultraviolet radiation (from the sun), hormones, infections, and certain foods. Some prescription drugs may play a part in the development of these disorders. Stress can also trigger autoimmune skin conditions.
Researchers think that some people have a genetic predisposition for certain autoimmune skin diseases. People with specific genes have an increased risk for developing a particular skin condition, but only if other trigger factors exist.
If your healthcare provider thinks you might have an autoimmune skin condition, they will ask you for a detailed medical and symptom history, and perform a physical examination of your skin. A diagnosis can be confirmed with bloodwork and/or a skin biopsy.
Blood tests can reveal autoantibodies associated with a specific autoimmune skin disease. By revealing which autoantibody protein has caused the skin symptoms, an exact diagnosis can be made.
A skin biopsy involves taking a small sample of affected tissue to be examined under a microscope to look for specific findings that indicate a particular condition. Many autoimmune skin conditions are diagnosed using direct immunofluorescence (DIF) for testing a skin biopsy sample.
DIF is considered a gold standard for diagnosing several types of autoimmune skin disorders, including cutaneous lupus, ocular cicatricial pemphigoid, pemphigus, epidermolysis bullosa, and bullous pemphigoid.
DIF uses a special dye to stain the sample so autoantibodies can be seen under a special type of microscope. By confirming the specific antibody present, the correct autoimmune skin disease can be diagnosed.
Treatment for autoimmune skin diseases involves managing symptoms, slowing down the overactivity of the immune system, and preventing complications associated with these conditions. Generally, the less widespread skin symptoms are, the easier it will be to treat your autoimmune skin disease.
The most commonly prescribed treatments for autoimmune skin disorders are corticosteroids, such as prednisone. These drugs will mimic the effects of hormones your body naturally produces to suppress inflammation.
Corticosteroids are effective therapies, but they cannot be used for long periods because they can cause serious side effects.
Additional therapies for autoimmune skin diseases include immunosuppressive drugs. These drugs are designed to suppress the immune system or reduce the effects of an overactive immune system. Immunosuppressant drugs can be given alone, or they can be combined.
Immunosuppressive drugs used to treat autoimmune skin conditions include:
- Calcineurin inhibitors like cyclosporine
- Cytotoxic drugs like Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), Imuran (azathioprine), and methotrexate
- Biologics like Orencia (abatacept) and Humira (adalimumab)
- Monoclonal antibodies therapies like Simulect (basiliximab)
Certain Janus kinase (JAK) inhibitors, notably, Xeljanz (tofacitinib), Olumiant (baricitinib), and Rinvoq (upadacitinib), are only Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved to treat patients with autoimmune conditions who haven’t responded to or cannot tolerate one or more tumor necrosis factor (TNF) inhibitors.
This is because research shows an increased risk of serious heart-related events such as heart attack or stroke, cancer, blood clots, and death using these JAK inhibitors.
Your healthcare provider may also recommend topical ointments to relieve skin symptoms and pain. UV light therapy can manage conditions like psoriasis to provide skin symptom relief. And because stress can make many of these conditions worse, stress management techniques will likely be part of your treatment plan.
A Word From Get Meds Info
Living with autoimmune skin conditions can be challenging, especially because these conditions can be quite visible. Additionally, the effects of these conditions can have a lasting effect on both your physical and mental well-being.
If you experience symptoms of an autoimmune skin condition, see your healthcare provider. They can help you figure out what is causing symptoms and start you on appropriate treatments.
Early diagnosis and treatment are both vital to your continuing to enjoy a good quality of life. And as new treatments become available, the outlook for people living with autoimmune skin disorders will continue to improve.