A warning for women: Doctors seeing rise in autoimmune diseases

A warning for women: Doctors seeing rise in autoimmune diseases (WKEF/WRGT)

MIAMI VALLEY, Ohio (WKEF/WRGT) - Digestive issues, headaches and achy joints are all common ailments, but could be a sign of a more serious health issue.

They're all early warning signs of an autoimmune disease, a broad category of illnesses when your immune system essentially attacks itself.

For Amber Hamilton, life can be categorized into two chapters; life before diagnosis and life after.

"I was strong and I was healthy. I didn't have any type of health issue at all," Hamilton said. "It affected everything completely. My strength. My endurance. Everything. I mean I had a great job. It just interfered with my job completely. I ended up losing it."

Hamilton said her battle with autoimmune disease started nearly 6 years ago, when some strange boils appeared on her stomach. The painful sores eventually spread to her face.

"I really didn't know what to think. I mean I went to doctor after doctor, and dermatologists. No one really had any answers for my questions and it kept getting worse."

It took several doctors and several years before Hamilton finally got some answers. She was diagnosed with Hidradenitis Suppurativa, an autoimmune disease that targets the skin.

In that regard, Amber's case isn't unique. On average patients see six doctors, over four years, before they get a diagnosis.

Dr. Timothy Drehmer with Upper Valley Rheumatology said the medical community is doing a better job identifying illnesses, but it can still be a complicated process.

"Sometimes the onset of symptoms is very subtle, so for many these things don't start with a bang," Dr. Drehmer said. "It's very subtle and it adds up. A patient with Lupus doesn't start out with all the features of Lupus. In fact, most patients with Lupus start out with only 5 or 6 signs, but they don't happen one at a time and subtly. Somewhere along the line someone has to put together the pieces and make that diagnosis."

That is happening more and more often. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, autoimmune diseases affect nearly 23.5 million Americans. Women account for 80 percent of those cases.

Dr. Drehmer said it's not really known why there is such a discrepancy.

"There are a number of theories, speculating why it might be, but you would imagine a brother and sister born to the same parents, raised in the same home, eating the same foods, carrying presumably the same genetics, with the exception of just one small chromosome, you'd expect there to be an equal occurrence of these things," he said. "It's not that way."

Some research suggest hormones may be to blame for the imbalance. Specifically estrogen and androgen.

Not only are women more susceptible, but once diagnosed with one autoimmune disease, the likelihood of others also increases.

"It's not that one disease causes another. What it is, is that one genetic predisposition would predispose you to other diseases," Dr. Drehmer said.

In addition to the skin condition, Hamilton has also been diagnosed with Graves Disease, an autoimmune disease impacting her thyroid.

"It's still hard," she says. "New things come up all the time. Arthritis is a problem now in my spine. It just seems like it's never ending. I mean I'm glad that I know what is going on and I do have great doctors that help me and believe in me and can lift me up."

Hamilton knows autoimmune diseases have a much deeper impact than the skin's surface. She says they've left her with an emotional wound that she is still hoping will one day heal.

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