Strands of grain on a textbook page talking about celiac.
Even though autoimmune diseases in children are rare, celiac is the most common autoimmune disease to occur.

Everything You Need to Know About Autoimmune Disease in Children

Autoimmune disease is a disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissues. Our body's immune system is responsible for fighting against outside invaders like bacteria, viruses, toxins, parasites and cancerous cells. It produces antibodies to attack and abolish these foreign invaders. While autoimmune disease can occur in adults, there is also autoimmune disease in children.

When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system fails to distinguish between healthy cells and potentially harmful substances. Your body then produces autoantibodies that attack your own healthy cells, tissues and organs. This causes inflammation and tissue damage.

What Are the Common Autoimmune Diseases in Children?

Autoimmune disease in children are very rare and the direct cause is still unknown. Some theories suggest that genetic inheritance and environmental factors contribute to the increased risk of developing an autoimmune disease.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is the most common autoimmune disease in children. It is a life-long condition that affects the digestive system. Children with celiac disease cannot eat food containing gluten because it damages their small intestine. Gluten is a group of proteins found in food such as wheat, rye and barley.

If a child eats or is exposed to gluten, their immune system starts damaging their intestinal villi. The villi’s function is to absorb vitamins and nutrients from the food that your child eats. Without this structure, their body will become malnourished. They may also become anemic because their body cannot absorb iron.

This disease typically develops after 6 months old, as you start to introduce solid foods to your child, which may or may not contain gluten. Infants and young children who have celiac disease experience signs and symptoms that include abdominal pain, bloating, persistent diarrhea or constipation, greasy and very foul-smelling stool, and vomiting. Older children and teens who have celiac disease may also experience non-gastrointestinal symptoms. The symptoms may be delayed puberty, pain in bones or joints, skin rash, recurrent headaches and chronic fatigue. They may also have mood disorders like depression and panic attacks.

Several tests can be done to diagnose celiac disease. The initial test includes a blood test that measures the level of specific antibodies. If the test gives a positive result, a biopsy of the small intestine is recommended to confirm the disease.

The mainstay treatment for celiac disease is a strict lifetime, gluten-free diet. This can be difficult because gluten is present in many foods. A dietician can help you make adjustments to your child's diet. You can also keep a list of food containing gluten. Always read the labels of packed foods to make sure they are gluten-free.

Support groups are a great resource to help you find out about products that are best for children who have celiac disease. Without following a gluten-free diet and lifestyle, your child can develop anemia, osteoporosis and other complications.

Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)

Juvenile idiopathic arthritis or JIA is the most common type of arthritis in children under the age of 16. It is a long-term condition characterized by persistent joint pain, swelling and stiffness. JIA is an inflammation of the synovium, which is the tissue that lines the inside of joints. Inflamed synovium makes your joint painful, swollen and difficult to move.

When your child has JIA, they may experience common symptoms like pain and swelling in one or more joints and stiffness that does not go away for more than six weeks. JIA typically affects the knees, hands and feet. You may also notice your child limping in the morning or after a nap because of a stiff knee. Symptoms may also include blurry vision, rashes, loss of appetite and high fever.

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To diagnose this disease, doctors will ask questions about your child's symptoms and your family history, followed by physical examinations. Your child may need to undergo x-rays, an ultrasound, an MRI and blood tests to rule out other conditions that may cause similar symptoms. Other tests such as a bone marrow biopsy, rheumatoid factor (RF) test, C-reactive protein (CRP) test and antinuclear antibody test may be required.

If your child is diagnosed with JIA, they can be treated with a combination of medication, physical therapy and healthy lifestyle habits. Medication like ibuprofen can be given to help control pain and inflammation. In some cases, your child may be prescribed corticosteroid injections into the joint for arthritis flares.

Your child may rarely need surgery. A recommended regular exercise program is an essential part of the treatment. This will help restore the function of the joints, build strength and endurance. The healthcare providers, including the primary physician, rheumatologist and physical therapist, may work together to make sure that your child has an overall good quality of life. They will ensure that your child remains physically and socially active.

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes in children is a condition in which the pancreas loses its ability to make insulin because the immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells. This disease can arise in infants, toddlers and teens.

Our bodies break down the nutrients in the food that we eat into a sugar called glucose. The insulin allows glucose to travel from the blood into the cells to be used for energy. It helps to keep the blood sugar in the normal range. Without insulin, glucose is stuck in the bloodstream, resulting in a high level of sugar in the blood.

Kids with type 1 diabetes show intense thirst and pee more often. You may also notice that your child has bed-wetting issues even if they are already potty-trained. Your child may also experience extreme hunger and may feel tired more often. Sudden weight loss, even if your child is eating more, can be a significant warning sign. Your child may become irritable, restless and moody. A sudden change in vision is not a common symptom but can occur because of very high sugar levels.

If you notice these signs and symptoms in your child, you should bring them to the doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment. The doctor will check for sugar in the urine and obtain a blood sample to check the sugar level. Other blood tests may also be done to confirm the type of diabetes your child has. Your child may be referred to a pediatric endocrinologist, a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of children with diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes is treated by keeping the blood sugar levels within normal range. To be able to do this, your child needs to take insulin as prescribed. You also need to check your child's blood sugar levels per doctor’s advice.

This life-long treatment should be matched with a healthy diet, so you have to make sure that your child is taking the right amount of carbohydrates. You also have to encourage them to do regular physical activity. Help your child prevent other complications by having them take a routine visit to their diabetes doctor. With proper care, your child will feel healthy and have a productive life like other kids.