When looking at autoimmune diseases, it’s impossible to ignore the hereditary link. According to Virginia Ladd, President of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, “It’s not unusual to find a direct relative with another autoimmune disease.”

Though the research is out there, there are still not enough doctors establishing this family history with their patients. “The question, ‘Do you have autoimmune disease in your family?’ is not asked the way it is about cancer or heart disease,” Ladd contends.

Asking questions

Doctors often don’t ask about these diseases in part because of old stigmas, but also due to the category being established fairly recently, many decades after cancers and heart diseases. Complicating matters further, autoimmune diseases come in many forms, presenting different symptoms and crossing a variety of medical specialties.

“Somebody in your family may have Crohn’s,” says Ladd, “Somebody else may have lupus, somebody else may have Type 1 diabetes. Those are all autoimmune diseases, and they have a genetic connection.” The different illnesses that fall into the category may surprise you. Even neurological problems like multiple sclerosis and Guillain-Barré syndrome have their basis in autoimmune responses.

“It can sometimes take three or four years, and just as many doctors, to diagnose an autoimmune disease.”

It’s important to ask your family members about everything. “They may know they have a disease,” says Ladd, “But they don’t know it’s an autoimmune disease.”

Getting answers

It can sometimes take three or four years, and just as many doctors, to diagnose an autoimmune disease. Often symptoms are vague, like soreness, swelling and fatigue, and doctors may explain these away as solutions. This makes looking into your family history even more important.

“There are over 100 autoimmune diseases, many of them fairly rare,” says Ladd, “If you don’t tell your doctor you have a number of autoimmune diseases in your family, they’re not going to think of it.”

If you or a loved one has an autoimmune disease, a great way you can help is by raising awareness of this disease category and the strong genetic link between the hundreds of illnesses that fall into it. By spreading the word, more people can get the quality of care, and life, that they deserve.