Do You Have Autoimmune Disease Symptoms?

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An autoimmune disease is a condition that results from your immune system wrongly attacking your own organs, tissues, glands, or cells. This misguided attack leads to inflammation of normal, healthy tissue—and it's this inflammation that causes the symptoms of an autoimmune disease.

Depending on the severity and location of the inflammation, unique symptoms manifest. The tricky part about autoimmune diseases is that the symptoms are often subtle, hard to pinpoint, and/or easily mistaken for more common ailments like depression, a viral infection, or run-of-the-mill stress.

Before launching into some of the key symptoms of a handful of autoimmune conditions, it's important to grasp an understanding of how any one particular autoimmune disease (and its symptoms) develop—the "why" behind how you feel, so to speak.

Cause

While the precise "cause of" or "why" behind most autoimmune diseases is largely unknown, experts do believe that some combination of a person's genetic makeup and one or more environmental exposures is what triggers the development of a particular condition. 

Genes

Experts know genes play an important role in autoimmune diseases because they tend to run in families, some more than others. Keep in mind, individual family members with autoimmune conditions may inherit and share a set of abnormal genes, although they may develop different diseases. For example, one sibling may have lupus, another may have Crohn's disease, and the mother may have rheumatoid arthritis. 

Environmental Triggers

We know that genes are not the only factor in determining who is going to develop an autoimmune disease. While inheriting one or more genes can make a person more vulnerable to getting an autoimmune disease, experts believe there is something in the environment that triggers or "turns on," the disease.

For the most part, these precise environmental triggers are unknown, although there is ample speculation and ongoing research. For example, research has suggested a potential link between infection with the Epstein Barr virus and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematosus; although, this link is just that—a possible connection that has not been definitively proven. Like an infection, tobacco exposure has been linked to the development of various autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, and Graves' disease, among others. Other potential environmental triggers include pregnancy, a vitamin deficiency, certain medications, and stress.

The Causes of Autoimmune Diseases

Symptoms

Below is a summary of autoimmune conditions, and their hallmark symptoms. This list is by no means exhaustive (there are over100 autoimmune conditions), so be sure to review all of your symptoms with your personal physician.

Alopecia areata is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes round, smooth areas of complete hair loss. The hair loss generally develops over a few weeks and occurs most commonly on the scalp, but may occur on other hair-bearing areas of the body.

Antiphospholipid syndrome (APS) develops more commonly in people with other autoimmune diseases, especially systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but it may also occur on its own. With APS, a person's immune system makes antibodies that target the cells that line your blood vessels. These antibodies increase the risk of developing blood clots in the arteries and veins. Besides blood clots, the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth is increased in pregnant women with APS.

With autoimmune hepatitis, a person's immune system attacks cells in the liver, causing inflammation. While autoimmune hepatitis may cause no symptoms early on, if symptoms are present, the most common one is fatigue, followed by jaundice, itching, joint pain, nausea, and right-sided abdominal pain.

With celiac disease, the immune system attacks the lining of a person's small intestines in response to gluten, which is 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 diarrhea, weight loss, abdominal pain, and excessive gas.

Crohn's disease is an inflammatory bowel disease characterized by widespread inflammation of your digestive tract. Common symptoms of Crohn's disease include fatigue, diarrhea with abdominal pain, weight loss, and fever. Some people also develop mouth sores, arthritis, and eye redness and pain.

Dermatomyositis results from widespread muscle and skin inflammation. In addition to characteristic rashes (for example, Gottron's papules), dermatomyositis causes gradual muscle weakness that affects both sides of the body. The muscles located closest to the body, like the thighs, shoulders, and neck, are the ones affected in this "inflammatory myopathy."

Graves' disease is an autoimmune disease that causes the thyroid gland to be overactive (called hyperthyroidism), meaning too much thyroid hormone is made. This causes the body to go into "overdrive," leading to symptoms like a racing heart, anxiety, weight loss, feeling hot when others are cold, and sweating more than usual, among others.

Guillain-Barre (GBS) results from an immune system attack on a person's nervous system that occurs after an infection, most commonly with the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni. GBS causes mild to severe muscle weakness that begins in the legs and moves up to the arms and face. Other symptoms can include muscle pain and numbness and tingling in the hands and feet.

Hashimoto's thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease that causes an underactive thyroid gland (called hypothyroidism), meaning there is a deficiency in thyroid hormone production. Since thyroid hormone plays an important role in your metabolism and the functioning of vital organs, like your muscles and brain, a variety of symptoms can manifest. Some of the more common symptoms include unusual tiredness, unexplained weight gain, feeling cold when others are hot, muscle cramps, problems concentrating, and constipation.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a neurological disorder that results when a person's immune system attacks the fatty covering surrounding nerve fibers in the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms vary significantly based on where in the brain and/or spinal cord the attacks occur. Some of the more common symptoms include fatigue, abnormal sensations like numbness and tingling, bladder problems, muscle tightness, and depression.

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

Some common symptoms of myasthenia gravis include drooping eyelids, blurry or double vision, trouble lifting one's arms and legs, and difficulties with swallowing, talking, breathing, and chewing foods.

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 deficiency leads to anemia. While a mild anemia may cause fatigue, a more severe anemia may cause problems breathing, chest pain, and pale skin.

Other symptoms of vitamin B12 deficiency include:

  • A swollen, tender tongue (called glossitis)
  • Depression
  • Thinking and memory problems
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet

Polymyositis is an inflammatory myopathy (like dermatomyositis, see above) that targets muscles closest to the body, such as the upper arms, shoulders, thighs, hips, and neck. Weakness in these muscles may lead to trouble climbing stairs, lifting objects, or swallowing.

With primary biliary cirrhosis, the immune system attacks the small bile ducts of the liver. Early symptoms of the disease include fatigue, itching, and dry eyes and mouth. As the disease progresses, other symptoms may develop, including abdominal pain, nausea, and jaundice.

Psoriasis is a skin disease that causes patches of red, thickened skin, usually covered by a silvery, flaky scale (called plaques). The "why" behind psoriasis is an immune system attack on the outer layer of the skin (called the epidermis). Besides plaques, people with psoriasis may develop joint pain and stiffness (called psoriatic arthritis).

When your immune system attacks your joints, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) may develop. At the onset of RA, a person may notice joint pain, stiffness, swelling, and warmth, especially in the joints at the base of the fingers and toes. Besides joint symptoms, other early symptoms include fatigue, muscle pain, low-grade fever, and weight loss. As the disease progresses, inflammation may occur in other parts of the body (besides the joints), like the heart and lungs, causing chest pain and trouble breathing.

Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes nodules of inflamed tissue (called granulomas) to form within organs, most commonly the lungs. This leads to symptoms like cough, chest discomfort, and shortness of breath. Sometimes, other organs are affected, like the skin, eyes, muscles, heart, brain, joints, and kidney, to name a few.

Systemic scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that affects the skin, connective tissues, and various organs (gut, lungs, kidney, and heart, to name a few).

The most common symptoms of systemic scleroderma include fatigue, Raynaud's phenomenon, loss of strength, and pain. Pain results from skin thickening and hardening, sores on the fingers (called digital ulcers), and stiff joints.

Depending on which organs are involved, symptoms may include shortness of breath and cough (lung involvement), acid reflux and problems swallowing (gut), high blood pressure (kidney involvement), and chest pain (heart involvement).

The primary symptoms of Sjogren's syndrome are dry eyes and mouth, due to the immune system damaging the glands the produce tears and saliva. As a result of the decreased tear and saliva production, other complications may result, including cavities, fungal infections in the mouth, acid reflux, and eye pain and blurry vision.

Although not very common, other organs like the lungs, kidneys, and joints, may be affected. This can cause symptoms linked to that organ involvement, such as cough, frequent urination, and joint pain.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) occurs when the immune system attacks and damages various organs within the body. Whole-body symptoms like fatigue, fever, and weight loss are common in SLE. Examples of symptoms related to the damage of a particular organ include a skin rash after sun exposure, joint pain and stiffness, and chest pain with heart and/or lung involvement.

Type 1 diabetes occurs when the immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells (called beta cells) in the pancreas. Interestingly, symptoms of high blood sugar, like frequent urination, excessive thirst, and blurry vision, do not occur until more than 90 percent of the beta cells have been destroyed.

Ulcerative colitis (UC) is an autoimmune bowel disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the colon. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and may change over time. Mild symptoms include diarrhea (less than four stools per day), crampy abdominal pain, and on and off rectal bleeding, among others.

People with severe symptoms can experience multiple (up to ten) bloody stools every day, significant abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss.

Vitiligo is an autoimmune skin condition that causes a person to lose the natural color or pigment of their skin. This causes the skin to lighten or become white. Besides the loss of natural skin color, people with vitiligo usually have no other symptoms, although some note the affected skin itches or is painful.

When to See Your Doctor

If you are worried you may be experiencing symptoms of an autoimmune condition, be sure to see a doctor for a comprehensive evaluation. After a thorough physical examination, blood tests, and possibly, imaging tests, if your primary care or family doctor suspects an autoimmune process, you will likely be referred to a specialist, like a rheumatologist (for example, for lupus or Sjogrens), an endocrinologist (for example, for Graves' disease), or a gastroenterologist (for example, for Crohn's or celiac disease).

How Autoimmune Diseases Are Diagnosed and Treated

A Word From Verywell

While the idea of being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease may seem frightening, the upside is that most conditions can be managed well, especially if treated promptly. Remain steadfast in your journey to finding the answers to your symptoms (whether or not you have an autoimmune process). By simply being on top of your health and in tune to how you feel, you are already ahead of the game.

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