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4 Autoimmune Diseases That Can Develop in Adolescence| Banner

Adolescence is a time of rapid growth and changes. While most teens are busy juggling school, friendships and after-school activities, some may also deal with unexpected health challenges. One such challenge is autoimmune diseases, a group of disorders where the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own cells and tissues.

There are over 100 known types of autoimmune disease. While these are more commonly diagnosed in adults, research shows autoimmune disorders are on the rise in teenagers aged 12 to 19. 

“Females are more likely to develop an autoimmune disease than males,” said Colton Redding, DO, a family medicine specialist with Banner Health. “Often these diseases develop in adolescence due to genetics and the body being exposed to new environmental factors like viruses, bacteria and foods.”

Read on to learn about a few of the most common autoimmune disorders that can appear during these formative years and how you can help support your child.

Four common autoimmune disorders in teens

1. Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This autoimmune condition can surface at any age but is more common during adolescence. 

Those with type 1 diabetes will need to manage their blood sugar levels through insulin injections or an insulin pump.

2. Celiac disease

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition caused by an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Adolescents with celiac disease may develop severe stomach problems. 

A strict gluten-free diet is the primary treatment. 

3. Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (juvenile idiopathic arthritis)

Juvenile arthritis is one of the most common chronic childhood conditions. The immune system mistakenly attacks the joints, causing swelling, pain and stiffness. 

Symptoms may come and go but can be treated with medications and physical therapy.

4. Pediatric lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus)

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect various organs, including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain and other organs. While lupus can occur at any age, it tends to hit kids harder than adults and carries extra health risks. 

Managing lupus involves medications, lifestyle changes and regular medical check-ups to monitor for possible complications. 

What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

There’s no single set of symptoms that covers all types of autoimmune disorders. 

“Symptoms are diverse for autoimmune disease and often non-specific, which can make recognition and diagnosis difficult at times,” Dr. Redding said. “Your teen may need several tests to narrow down the possible cause for their symptoms.”

Often, though, symptoms reoccur and may include:

  • Fevers
  • Fatigue or chronic tiredness
  • Rashes
  • Weight loss

Other symptoms may include joint pain, dry eyes and/or mouth and dizziness.

How can I help my teen navigate an autoimmune disease?

Living with an autoimmune condition during adolescence can throw a curveball into an already challenging time in their life. It can affect their:

  • Social life: The visible symptoms of some autoimmune conditions can make teens feel self-conscious, affect their confidence and lead to teasing and social exclusion from their peers.
  • School and activities: Symptoms of their condition can make it harder for teens to concentrate or participate in school and after-school activities.
  • Emotional well-being: Dealing with a chronic condition can take a toll on mental health. Teens may grapple with anxiety, depression and a sense of isolation.

As a parent, you are your child’s anchor. Here are ways you can support your teen on their journey:

  • Open communication: “Listening and validating your child’s concerns is helpful and important,” Dr. Redding said. Be a listening ear without judgment. 
  • Education: Learn about the disease to better understand its symptoms, triggers and treatments.
  • Emotional support: Recognize the emotional challenges that come with managing a chronic condition. Be empathetic, offer emotional support and consider involving a licensed behavioral health specialist.
  • Home support: Make necessary adjustments at home to help with your teen’s needs. This may include dietary changes, creating a calm, stress-free environment or getting medical supplies.
  • Medical support: Ensure your child receives regular check-ups and follows their treatment plan. Attend appointments together to stay informed about the condition.
  • Advocacy: Empower your child to speak up for themselves, whether at school or in social situations. Provide them with the knowledge and skills to communicate their needs and limitations.
  • Hobbies and interests: Encourage them to pursue their passions and hobbies. Engaging in activities they enjoy can be a positive distraction and contribute to overall well-being.
  • Support groups: Help your teen find and connect with support groups or communities of individuals facing similar challenges. This can provide a sense of belonging and shared experiences.
  • School support: If your child experiences any learning problems that are caused by or related to their condition, they may need extra help or adjustments at school. Keep an open line of communication with school staff and consider developing a 504 plan or IEP to create a supportive environment with flexible accommodations.
  • Healthy diet: Promote a healthy, balanced diet with fruits, vegetables and fatty fish that contain anti-inflammatory properties that can help reduce swelling.

Bottom line

While adolescence can be a challenging time, facing an autoimmune condition can add an extra layer of complexity. If you suspect your teen may be experiencing symptoms of an autoimmune disorder, talk to their health care provider or reach out to a Banner Health expert. With proper care and resources, your child can still thrive as they navigate the exciting teen years.

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