Organ-specific and systemic autoimmune diseases

Autoimmune diseases can be divided into two groups: organ-specific and systemic.

Organ-specific diseases include diseases such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis and coeliac disease, in which specific organs (in coeliac disease, the lining of the small intestine) are attacked by the immune system.

Systemic diseases can affect any part of the body and several systems at once, including multiple organs. Diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and rheumatoid arthritis are systemic diseases.

The distribution of the auto-antigen largely determines the manifestations of the disease.


Clustering of autoimmune diseases  

In non-organ-specific autoimmune diseases, there is often an overlap of autoantibody profiles and clinical features in an individual. A patient presenting with some features of SLE and some of scleroderma is said to have an overlap syndrome.

It is also possible for an individual to have two different autoimmune diseases (e.g. thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis) simultaneously. This happens far more frequently than would be expected by chance.

Similarly, there may be clustering of autoimmune diseases within the same family. This phenomenon can be explained partly by the underlying genetic basis of these diseases. However, this does not account for one person developing pernicious anaemia while a sibling develops Hashimoto's thyroiditis.

Detailed descriptions of individual autoimmune diseases are available in specialist books. A small selection is listed below.

Further specialist books:

  • Rose NR, Mackay IR (1998) The autoimmune diseases, 3rd edition. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, USA
  • Ollier W, Symmons DPM (1992) Autoimmunity. BIOS Scientific Publishers Limited, Oxford, Great Britain
  • Stites DP, Terr AI, Parslow TG (1997) Medical Immunology, 9th edition. Appleton & Lange, Stamford, CT, USA