The immune system protects our bodies from bacteria, viruses and illness. When children’s immune systems are compromised, however, they may be stricken with a pediatric autoimmune disease. This guide is designed to help you better understand autoimmune conditions so that you can provide your child with the best care possible.
What Are Autoimmune Disorders?
The autoimmune system is a network of cells, organs and molecules that constantly fight off illnesses. When it works well, it’s a vital way to stay healthy. When it fights off the body’s healthy responses instead, then it becomes a serious threat. When this occurs, one is said to have an autoimmune disease. These are rare in children and can therefore be difficult to diagnose and treat. There are more than 80 mostly chronic autoimmune diseases that have no cure, and aggressive treatment is often necessary.
How The Immune System Works
Immunology, or the study of autoimmune diseases, is an evolving field, and doctors are still learning about how the immune system works and malfunctions. We do, however, know the basics about how the immune system keeps us healthy.
When a foreign particle, like a bacteria, virus or pollen, enters the body, the innate immune system immediately responds. This system consists of natural responses to the antigen, such as skin, mucous membranes, and coughing or sneezing. The innate immune system also includes white blood cells designed to either eat up antigens that penetrate further into the body or delay them until the adaptive immune system can respond. Unlike the innate system, the adaptive system is constantly changing in response to new antigens. It identifies foreign particles and makes new proteins, called antibodies, to attack them. The adaptive system uses B cells and T cells to produce, carry out, and stop attacks on antigens.
What Happens When a Child Has Autoimmune Disease?
When a child has an autoimmune disease, their body accidentally beings attacking healthy cells and tissues. These diseases typically target connective tissues, and symptoms range from fatigue and mild rashes to seizures. Diagnosis is difficult because symptoms are generally nonspecific — occurring as the result of other illnesses as well — and not constant. Girls are more likely to have an autoimmune disease than boys. Though doctors are not completely sure of what causes autoimmune disease, evidence suggests it may be due to genetics.
Types of Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune diseases can affect any part of the body, and each type requires a different treatment strategy. However, they generally fall into two groups. Organ-specific disorders, or localized disorders, affect one organ:
- Addison’s disease affects kidneys
- Autoimmune hepatitis affects the liver
- Crohns’ disease and ulcerative colitis affect the gastrointestinal tract
- Multiple sclerosis affects the central nervous system
- Type 1 diabetes affects the pancreas
Non-specific disorders, or systemic disorders, can affect the entire body:
- Juvenile dermatomyositis affects the skin and muscles
- Juvenile idiopathic arthritis affects the joints, skin and lungs
- Lupus affects the joints, skin, liver, kidneys, heart and brain
- Scleroderma affects the skin, joints, intestine and lungs
Who Is At Risk?
Risk factors vary by illness, and there are dozens of autoimmune disorders. However, girls are three times more likely than boys to have a disease, and adolescent girls and young women are at greatest risk. Most autoimmune diseases, in fact, affect younger and middle-aged people, though some specifically begin in childhood.
In addition to age, genetics likely play a strong role in developing an autoimmune disease. Children of different races may also be more likely to develop certain autoimmune diseases, as are children who already have one autoimmune disease. There is no way to prevent an autoimmune disease, no matter the cause.
How To Care For Autoimmune Disorders
If your child has an autoimmune disease, they will be cared for by a team of specialists, including pediatric rheumatologists and dermatologists. The team will work together to develop a care plan for your child, which may include pain management, exercise routines, diet regimens, and emotional or spiritual counseling.
Having a child with an autoimmune disease can cause significant stress within your family. Coping with the diagnosis of a lifelong illness, managing family schedules and strong feelings, and gaining the support of your peers can all make this period of life more difficult.
If you are struggling with your child’s treatment and diagnosis, contact KidsCare of the Rockies for support. KidsCare provides palliative care services, which are designed to make children and their families as comfortable as possible while receiving treatment. The organization’s dedicated team of nurses, doctors, specialists, and volunteers will create a unique care plan that addresses your child’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs to help them maintain a high quality of life. KidsCare also connects families with counseling services and takes on some caregiving functions, giving you the time you need to rest, recharge, and take care of your own needs while your child is in the capable hands of a professional.