Symptoms of Autoimmune Diseases

They can be vague and hard to identify

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Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system views healthy parts of the body as harmful invaders, like bacteria or viruses, and attacks them. The body's reaction to perceived harm, known as inflammation, can trigger common symptoms of autoimmune diseases such as pain, rashes, and exhaustion.

There are many autoimmune conditions. And while many share symptoms, there are things that set them apart.

Autoimmune diseases common symptoms.

Emily Roberts / Verywell

This article explains the common signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases. It also covers symptoms of specific autoimmune conditions, potential complications, and when to reach out to your doctor.

Common Signs and Symptoms

Inflammation, which can cause tissue and organ damage, is the main trigger behind the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

Signs and symptoms that are common to most autoimmune diseases include:

  • Fatigue
  • Pain and swelling in the muscles, connective tissues, and/or joints
  • Skin rashes
  • Stomachache
  • Swollen glands
  • Recurring low-grade fever
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet

The intensity of these can change. Flare-ups refer to periods when symptoms worsen, while remission refers to having few or no symptoms during a stretch of time.

Symptoms by Autoimmune Condition

There are more than 80 autoimmune conditions. There is great overlap in symptoms among many of these issues, but also distinctive symptoms that may help differentiate between them.

Keep in mind that around 25% of individuals with an autoimmune issue have more than one of these conditions. This can make sorting out diagnoses more difficult. It can also cause some symptoms to be compounded.

Alopecia Areata

In alopecia areata, the immune system attacks the hair follicles, causing hair loss. This mainly occurs on the scalp, though it can affect the eyebrows, eyelashes, beards, or any body hair.

Symptoms include:

  • Coin-sized or larger, round, smooth patches of hair loss
  • Hair thinning
  • Exclamation point hairs, which are hairs that break off when they grow in, leaving shorter pieces of hair
  • Widespread hair loss
  • Nail pitting, which is when dents and ridges form in the nail
  • Nail thickness
  • Baldness or loss of all body hair (rare)

Antiphospholipid Syndrome

With antiphospholipid syndrome, or APS, antibodies—blood proteins the immune system uses to protect the body from harm—damage the cells lining your blood vessels. This increases the risk of blood clots in your arteries and veins.

Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the arms or legs
  • Warmth and redness in the arms or legs
  • Headaches
  • Changes in speech and memory loss
  • Nausea
  • Red rash on wrists and knees

Autoimmune Hepatitis

Autoimmune hepatitis is when the body attacks the liver, an important organ that acts as the body's filter.

While this condition may not cause symptoms in the early stages, symptoms may develop over time and include:

  • Fatigue, or exhaustion and lack of motivation
  • Jaundice, which is yellowing of the skin and eyes
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Upper stomach pain
  • Decreased appetite
  • Dark urine, or pee
  • Light-colored stools
  • Rash, acne, or other skin conditions

Recap

Alopecia areata can lead to hair loss and nail pitting. Antiphospholipid syndrome can trigger headaches and rashes. Autoimmune hepatitis can cause joint pain, rashes, and stomach-related issues.

Celiac Disease

In celiac disease, the immune system attacks the lining of your small intestines in response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and many prepared foods.

While the symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person, some of the more common ones include:

Crohn's Disease

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease that causes widespread digestive tract inflammation.

Common symptoms of Crohn's disease include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach pain and cramping
  • Weight loss
  • Anemia (low red blood cell count)
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Decreased appetite
  • Joint pain
  • Eye pain
  • Red, bumpy skin rash

Recap

Celiac disease and Crohn's disease can both cause diarrhea, stomach pain, and joint pain.

Dermatomyositis

Dermatomyositis is a rare condition that can cause muscle swelling and inflammation, as well as skin-related issues.

Inflammation can lead to symptoms such as:

  • Red or purple bumps called Gottron's papules
  • Muscle weakness
  • Raynaud's phenomenon, which describes joints that ache, turn blue or white, and feel stiff when in cold environments
  • Dry and rough skin
  • Thinning hair
  • Red, swollen areas around your fingernails
  • Hard lumps that can be felt under the skin
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Voice changes
  • Fatigue

Graves' Disease

Graves' disease causes overactivity of the thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). This leads to an increase in thyroid hormone production, which impacts multiple organs, including the heart.

Symptoms include:

  • A racing heartbeat that may be irregular
  • Anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Feeling hot
  • Sweating more than usual
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue or muscle weakness
  • Shaking hands
  • Sleep problems

Guillain-Barré Syndrome

Guillain-Barré syndrome, or GBS, results from an immune system attack on the nervous system after a bacterial or viral infection.

As the nervous system is responsible for coordinating movement and processing sensory information, a variety of symptoms can occur. These include:

  • Leg and arm weakness
  • Breathing muscle weakness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Numbness and tingling, especially in the hands and feet
  • Muscle pain

Guillain-Barré can develop quickly and may improve within a few weeks, but it can also lead to permanent damage.

Recap

Dermatomyositis can lead to hard lumps under the skin, thinning hair, and Raynaud's phenomenon. Grave's disease causes hyperthyroidism and can trigger anxiety and a racing heartbeat. Guillain-Barré syndrome can cause muscle weakness and pain.

Hashimoto's Thyroiditis

Hashimoto's thyroiditis causes an underactive thyroid gland, also known as hypothyroidism. This decrease in thyroid hormones causes body processes to slow down, as well as:

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Feeling cold when others are not
  • Muscle cramps
  • Joint stiffness
  • Constipation
  • Hair loss
  • Dry skin
  • Heavy or irregular periods
  • Slow heartbeat

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disorder in which your immune system attacks the fatty covering, or myelin sheath, on nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Nerve fibers help with brain/body communication.

Symptoms vary significantly based on where in the brain and/or spinal cord the attacks occur, but some of the more common signs are:

  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Electrical shock sensations in the limbs or back
  • Dizziness
  • Bladder problems
  • Difficulty walking

Myasthenia Gravis

Myasthenia gravis occurs when the immune system makes antibodies that attack the proteins that facilitate nerve and muscle communication. This leads to weakness in the eyes, neck, jaw, limbs, and muscles used for breathing.

Some common symptoms of myasthenia gravis include:

  • Drooping eyelids
  • Blurry or double vision
  • Difficulties with swallowing, talking, breathing, and chewing foods
  • Facial expressions that appear mask-like
  • Trouble lifting the arms and legs

Recap

Hashimoto's thyroiditis can cause fatigue, joint stiffness, and hair loss. Multiple sclerosis can lead to dizziness, difficulty walking, and fatigue. Myasthenia gravis can cause blurry vision and difficulty with arm and leg movement.

Pernicious Anemia

In pernicious anemia, the immune system attacks the protein necessary for absorbing vitamin B12 in the gut. Since vitamin B12 plays an important role in making red blood cells, a lack of it leads to anemia.

While mild anemia may simply cause fatigue, more severe anemia may cause:

  • Breathing issues
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Chest pain
  • Pale skin
  • Difficulty walking
  • Cold, tingling, or numbness in the hands and feet
  • A red, swollen tongue
  • Depression, which is a mental health condition that can cause sleep issues, low mood, and loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Thinking and memory problems
  • Diarrhea, bloating, and heartburn

While similar, pernicious anemia is different from the more common iron-deficiency anemia, which is triggered by low iron in your diet, as well as long-term bleeding.

Polymyositis

Polymyositis is an inflammatory condition that targets the muscles of your neck, upper arms, shoulders, thighs, and hips. Weakness in these muscles may lead to trouble climbing stairs, lifting objects, or swallowing.

Other symptoms can include:

  • Joint pain or muscle tenderness
  • Difficulty breathing, swallowing, or speaking
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular heart rhythm

Primary Biliary Cirrhosis

With primary biliary cirrhosis, the immune system attacks the small bile ducts—tubes that connect the liver to the small intestine. Early symptoms of the disease include:

  • Fatigue
  • Itching
  • Stomach pain
  • Poor appetite
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Jaundice
  • Yellow bumps on the skin

Psoriasis

With psoriasis, skin cells build up too quickly. This causes patches of red, thickened skin that are usually covered by a silvery, flaky scales called plaques.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Skin that's itchy, dry, cracked, and may bleed
  • Pitted, cracked, or weak nails
  • Scaly scalp

About a third of people with psoriasis will develop psoriatic arthritis, a related condition that causes joint stiffness and pain.

Recap

Polymyositis can trigger muscle weakness and breathing difficulties. Primary biliary cirrhosis can lead to stomach pain, itching, and jaundice. Symptoms of psoriasis include itchy dry skin and weak nails.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

If you have rheumatoid arthritis, your body attacks your joints and other tissues. This can lead to joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and warmth, especially in the joints in the hands and knees. The same symptoms tend to occur on both sides of the body.

Besides joint symptoms, other early symptoms include:

As the disease progresses, inflammation may occur in other parts of the body, like the heart and lungs, causing chest pain and trouble breathing.

Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes lumps of inflamed tissue to form within organs, most commonly the lungs and lymph nodes, which are glands that are part of the immune system.

This leads to symptoms like:

Sjögren's Syndrome

The main symptoms of Sjögren's syndrome are dry eyes and mouth. These are caused by the immune system damaging the glands that produce tears and saliva.

Other symptoms and related complications may include:

  • Dry skin, lips, nasal passages, throat, and vagina
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen salivary glands, which make spit
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Changes in taste or smell
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Headaches
  • Dental cavities
  • Stomachaches
  • Eye infections

Although not very common, other organs like the lungs, liver, and kidneys may be impacted as well.

Systemic Scleroderma

Systemic scleroderma, also called systemic sclerosis, causes connective tissue to build-up too quickly, which leads to scarring. This affects the skin and organs.

The most common symptoms of systemic scleroderma include:

  • Fatigue
  • Raynaud's phenomenon
  • Loss of strength
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Sores on the fingers
  • Tingling and numbness
  • Dry skin that feels tight or stretched
  • Difficulty breathing

Some symptoms depend on which organs are involved. For example, if the heart is impacted, an individual may experience chest pain and heart failure, which is when the heart struggles to pump enough blood.

Recap

Rheumatoid arthritis and sarcoidosis can both cause fatigue, joint pain, and a fever. Symptoms of Sjögren's include dry eyes and mouth. Systemic scleroderma causes scarring that impacts the skin and organs.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus occurs when the immune system attacks and damages various organs within the body.

Lupus affects everyone differently. Some people have a few, mild symptoms, while others may have numerous, more severe symptoms.

Symptoms can include:

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system destroys beta cells in the pancreas. These cells produce insulin, a hormone that helps blood sugar get processed into energy.

This attack on the beta cells can go on for years without symptoms showing up.

Symptoms that can occur include:

Ulcerative Colitis

Ulcerative colitis is an autoimmune bowel disease that causes inflammation in the lining of the colon. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping stomach pain
  • Blood or mucus in your stool
  • Urgent need to go to the bathroom or feeling like you have to poop, even if your bowel is empty
  • Fever
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Exhaustion

Vitiligo

Vitiligo causes a loss of the natural color (pigment) of your skin and may include symptoms like:

  • Blotchy patches of very light or white skin
  • Whitening of hair on the head and face
  • Loss of color in the eyes, inside of the mouth, and the genitals
  • Itchiness and pain (for some individuals)

Recap

Lupus can cause dry mouth, rashes, hair loss, and muscle pain. Type 1 diabetes can lead to increased thirst and urination. Ulcerative colitis causes colon inflammation and can trigger diarrhea, stomach pain, and bloody stools. And vitiligo can lead to symptoms such as hair whitening and blotchy patches of light skin.

Complications of Autoimmune Conditions

Autoimmune diseases can potentially put you at risk for serious complications. These vary by condition, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Heart disease: Conditions that cause inflammation, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, can lead to the hardening of the arteries and heart disease.
  • Mood disorders: Long-term pain and fatigue, which are symptoms of many autoimmune diseases, are often associated with depression and anxiety.
  • Neuropathy: Nerve damage, or neuropathy, can develop with many autoimmune disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis and Sjögren's syndrome. This can lead to feeling numb and weak.
  • Deep vein thrombosis: Those with ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease, as well as individuals who have difficulty with movement have an increased risk of developing blood clots. These clots sometimes travel to the lungs and cause a blockage, known as a pulmonary embolism.
  • Organ damage: Autoimmune diseases that attack specific organs can cause significant damage if not properly treated. For example, type 1 diabetes can cause kidney failure.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what you can do to minimize the risk of complications specifically associated with your condition(s).

When Should I See a Healthcare Provider for a Suspected Autoimmune Disease?

If you're worried you may be experiencing symptoms of an autoimmune condition, be sure to see your healthcare provider for a comprehensive evaluation and a physical exam.

Your doctor may also order blood tests such as:

  • The antinuclear antibody test, which checks for specific antibodies to see if your immune system is attacking itself
  • Complete blood count (CBC), which closely evaluates your blood
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate, which checks for inflammation

If your healthcare provider suspects an autoimmune disease, you will likely be referred to a specialist, such as a rheumatologist (a doctor who focuses on musculoskeletal diseases) or an endocrinologist (a doctor who specializes in hormonal conditions).

Summary

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body views healthy tissues or cells as harmful and attacks them. This leads to inflammation, which may trigger a variety of symptoms such as fatigue, rash, pain, swelling, difficulty focusing, and a tingling or numb sensation.

There are dozens of autoimmune diseases, and each affects people somewhat differently.

Possible complications can also vary depending on the specific autoimmune disease. However, common ones include heart disease, mood disorders, nerve damage, blood clots, and organ damage.

A Word From Verywell

Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can feel scary and stressful. Keep in mind that most conditions can be managed well, especially if they're treated early on in their progression.

If you have symptoms that seem in line with an autoimmune condition, don't hesitate to call your healthcare provider.

Also be aware that autoimmune conditions can be difficult to diagnose. Be patient and engaged with the process as your practitioner works to sort out what's affecting you. And remember that no symptom is too insignificant to mention.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How is an autoimmune rash treated?

    A rash caused by an autoimmune disease is usually treated with corticosteroids, which help with inflammation, and immune-suppressing drugs, which stop your immune system from attacking healthy tissues and cells.

  • What does an autoimmune flare-up feel like?

    During a flare-up, your symptoms get worse. Symptoms will vary depending on the specific autoimmune disease, its progression, and how well it is being managed.

  • What are the most common autoimmune diseases?

    Common autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Crohn's disease, and psoriasis.

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