Autoimmune Diseases

If it weren’t for the immune system—the human body’s natural defense against outside invaders—we would be sick all the time. This complex network of cells, organs and molecules fights off things like bacteria and viruses 24 hours a day, from our head to our toes. It’s a powerful protection when it’s working for us, but can also be a powerful threat when it turns against us, in what’s called an autoimmune disease (“auto” meaning “self”). 

Autoimmune diseases in children are generally rare, and when they occur they can be challenging to diagnose and difficult to treat. Doctors are still learning about this large group of mostly chronic illnesses—more than 80 in all—and most have no cure yet. If your child has an autoimmune problem, much depends on figuring out what it is and treating it aggressively, both of which we specialize in at Boston Children’s Hospital. 

  • In an autoimmune disease, something causes the immune system to mistakenly begin attacking healthy cells and tissues.
  • Autoimmune diseases can affect almost any part of the body, though often target connective tissues (skin, muscle and joints).
  • Symptoms can range from fatigue and mild rashes to rare, serious warning signs, like seizures.
  • Diagnosis can be difficult because many symptoms tend to come and go, and are frequently nonspecific—they occur in different kinds of autoimmune diseases as well as other types of illnesses, like infection and cancer.
  • On the whole, autoimmune diseases occur most often in females (by a 3-to-1 margin over males).

Autoimmune diseases that occur in children include:

How Boston Children’s Hospital approaches autoimmune diseases

While the health care team for children with autoimmune diseases may include many kinds of specialists, the doctors with the greatest expertise in these illnesses are called pediatric rheumatologists. And of the roughly 200 pediatric rheumatologists in the country, more than half a dozen work at Children’s Hospital Boston, making us a unique and powerful force in fighting autoimmune disease. 

  • Overall, the Rheumatology Department at Boston Children’s is one of the biggest in the U.S., treating more than 4,000 outpatients and almost 1,000 inpatients every year.
  • Our Samara Jan Turkel Clinical Center for Pediatric Autoimmune Disease brings together pediatric rheumatologists and consulting specialists from across the hospital to offer comprehensive, coordinated care—from providing outpatient and inpatient treatment to helping children and families connect to a wide range of support services.
  • The Multiple Manifestations of Autoimmune Disease Clinic is a collaboration between Boston Children's Division of Allergy and Immunology and Rheumatology Department. The clinic is aimed at helping children with multiple autoimmune symptoms that don’t fit a single diagnosis.
  • Similarly, Boston Children's Dermatology-Rheumatology Center unites rheumatologists and dermatologists in caring for children with autoimmune diseases that involve the skin, such as psoriatic arthritis, scleroderma and juvenile dermatomyositis.

Home to the world’s largest pediatric research enterprise, Children’s Hospital Boston is also looking toward the future. Through initiatives like the Manton Center for Orphan Disease Research and the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine, our clinicians and scientists are working together on new ways to identify, treat and potentially cure autoimmune diseases.

Autoimmune diseases: Reviewed by Melissa Hazen, MD 
© Boston Children’s Hospital, 2011