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Asthma and Autoimmunity

Last updated: March 2022

Asthma is caused by an overreaction from the immune system to certain triggers. This is similar to a class of diseases caused by an immune system response. These are called autoimmune conditions. However, asthma is not considered an autoimmune disease.1

What is autoimmunity?

Your immune system’s job is to fight off foreign invaders in your body that cause disease and infection. Autoimmunity is a response that happens when your immune system antibodies malfunction and attack your healthy cells and tissues. These antibodies are called autoantibodies.2

Any disease that is caused by an autoimmunity response is called an autoimmune condition. Some examples are:2

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Type 1 diabetes
  • Lupus
  • Graves’ disease

Is asthma an autoimmune disease?

Asthma is caused by an overactive immune response. But asthma is not considered an autoimmune disease. The processes that cause the asthma immune response are different from the ones that cause autoimmune diseases.3

Most people with asthma have allergic asthma. This is sometimes called extrinsic asthma. In extrinsic asthma, the immune system is triggered by allergens. This causes the immune system to overreact. The reaction causes inflammation in the lungs, which then causes trouble breathing. This immune reaction is mainly driven by an antibody called IgE.3

Some people with asthma are not triggered by allergens. Instead, things like exercise, stress, extreme hot or cold temperatures, or infections trigger their asthma. This type of asthma is called nonallergic, or intrinsic, asthma. It makes up 10 to 33 percent of all asthma cases. The immune response in intrinsic asthma is very similar to the response in extrinsic asthma. However, intrinsic asthma is more likely to cause severe asthma.4

How is asthma connected to the immune system?

Scientists are still studying exactly how asthma is connected to the immune system. They think the immune system has a role in the asthma response and the development of asthma.1

Scientists do not know exactly why some people develop asthma. Some think asthma could be caused by an immune response to viruses. They believe standard viruses could cause the immune system to develop the behavior that leads to asthma in some people.5,6

The causes of intrinsic asthma are not well understood. This is because it can be triggered by so many things. But some scientists also think an autoimmune response may have a role in causing it. This potential link could help people with intrinsic asthma, who are sometimes more difficult to treat. It is possible that intrinsic asthma could respond to treatment with medicine used for autoimmune conditions.1

How can asthma affect autoimmune disease?

There is limited research on the impact asthma can have on autoimmune conditions. Certain triggers like stress or extreme heat or cold can trigger asthma, as well as some autoimmune conditions.1

Some autoimmune diseases are also more common for people with asthma. The rate of diseases like type 1 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis are slightly higher for people with asthma. Though there may be a link here, it does not mean you are more likely to develop an autoimmune condition just because you have asthma. More research is needed to better understand this possible link.1

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