Autoimmune Disease Symptoms


Your immune system protects you from viruses, bacteria and infection. If you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks your body’s healthy tissue and organs instead, causing a range of often vague symptoms.1 Autoimmune disease symptoms, such as fatigue and joint pain, mimic symptoms of many other conditions. Below is some advice about how to recognize symptoms of autoimmune diseases and when to seek help.
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Causes   |   Symptoms   |   Common Diseases   |   Overlap   |   Risk

What Causes Autoimmune Disease Symptoms


According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms of autoimmune disease often occur in multiple body parts.2

Symptoms arise from the body’s response to what it labels a threat. When the immune system recognizes germs and other foreign invaders, your body releases antibodies that attack those substances before they can make you sick. In addition, your body sends white blood cells and other signals to help destroy the invader germs. Swelling may build up around the site of infection because of the increase in cells and signals.3

In healthy bodies, this swelling serves a good purpose. It surrounds the threat and prevents it from causing further damage.3 With autoimmune disease, the body may attack itself, even though there is no immediate danger.

Inflammation from the immune system attacking the body occurs with all sorts of autoimmune diseases. With Type 1 diabetes, the inflammation isn’t visible to the naked eye. It occurs within the digestive organ called the pancreas, which makes digestive juices and insulin.4 Graves’ disease often results in excessive production of thyroid hormones, which may trigger visible symptoms, including muscle weakness and eye inflammation.5 With eye inflammation, the tissue surrounding the eyes may swell and in some cases, cause your eyes to bulge.

Common Autoimmune Disease Symptoms


There are a variety of blood tests, including the AVISE® CTD and AVISE lupus tests, that can help your provider uncover many types of autoimmune diseases. If you experience lupus symptoms, your provider may recommend an antinuclear antibody (ANA) blood test. The ANA test is usually positive in lupus but is found in many other autoimmune conditions and in healthy people. These tests detect substances in your blood that indicate an autoimmune disease. However, you can have a negative ANA but still have autoimmune symptoms.6 If symptoms persist, your provider may order another blood test.

While the following list of symptoms is not comprehensive, it applies to many types of autoimmune diseases7:


  • Fatigue that interferes with your ability to perform daily activities
  • Frequent fever8
  • Muscle aches
  • Painful joint swelling
  • Skin complications, such as hard patches and rashes9
  • Stomach issues, such as abdominal pain or problems with digestion
  • Swollen lymph nodes in multiple areas of the body10

The severity of symptoms ranges from person to person. And often, the symptoms flare for a while, only to go away for periods of time.1

Common Autoimmune Diseases


Currently, there are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases.11 Each has unique symptoms that help providers make accurate diagnoses. Some of these common conditions include12:

  • Celiac disease. Triggered by eating foods that contain gluten, this disease damages the small intestine.13 Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation or diarrhea.14
  • Lupus. Symptoms of this disease can vary widely for each person and can affect many body parts. Lupus symptoms may include a butterfly-shaped rash on the face, joint swelling, high sensitivity to sunlight, hair loss and chest pain.
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS). Affecting the brain and spinal cord, MS results in a variety of symptoms, including pain, fatigue, numbness or tingling sensations, blindness, memory issues and paralysis.15
  • Myasthenia gravis. This condition weakens muscles throughout the body, affecting your ability to swallow, close your eyelids and talk.16 Symptoms of this disease improve with rest and worsen after being physically active.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis. Often, rheumatoid arthritis affects multiple joints at the same time, causing pain, stiffness, swelling and tenderness in the joints. Typically, these problems affect both sides of the body. This arthritis can also be accompanied by weight loss.17
  • Inflammatory bowel disease. With ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, your immune system attacks the intestine, colon and/or rectum. The result is stomach cramps, diarrhea (which can be bloody) and a frequent, sudden need to have a bowel movement. Sometimes, the need may wake you up at night.18

Overlap With Other Conditions


Autoimmune disease symptoms can be tricky. Because they mimic other diseases, your symptoms may not point to specific autoimmune diseases. So, before your provider can diagnose an autoimmune disease, other conditions must be ruled out first.

For example, various infections and inflammatory diseases cause the same symptoms as MS, as can brain tumors, spinal cord damage, genetic disorders and even a lack of vitamin B12.19

Other conditions have similar overlap. Working with experts in autoimmune diseases who have access to autoimmune disease tests helps identify these conditions as early as possible.

Who Is at Risk


Medical research has yet to reveal what causes all cases of autoimmune disease, but we do know certain people are at greater risk. The following factors may increase your likelihood of developing an autoimmune disease20:

  • Childhood infections, including Epstein-Barr virus. You may recover fully as a child, but the virus or bacteria can lay dormant and affect your immune system later in life.
  • Genetics. Some types of autoimmune disease run in families. A family history of autoimmune diseases increases the likelihood you’ll develop one.
  • Having an autoimmune disease. If you already have an autoimmune disease, you’re at higher risk of developing another. Approximately 1 in 4 people with autoimmune diseases has more than one.
  • Obesity. Research suggests that obesity promotes inflammation, which can increase the chances of an autoimmune disease. People who are obese also appear to experience more severe forms of these conditions.21
  • Sex. Autoimmune disease affects women more often than men. Researchers suspect hormonal changes and immune responses may play a role.
  • Smoking. Cigarettes contain harmful chemicals that can damage your immune system, increasing your chance of developing MS and other autoimmune diseases.
  • Specific medications. Medications to manage blood pressure, cholesterol and mental health issues can affect the immune system. Drug-induced lupus is one example of an autoimmune disease caused by medications.
Our lupus symptoms checklist can help as you begin the journey to diagnosis for one of the most common forms of autoimmune disease.

Symptoms Checklist
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Last reviewed by an Exagen medical professional on 08/26/2022.

References:

  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Autoimmune Diseases. MedlinePlus. Updated October 15, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/autoimmunediseases.html. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  2. National Institutes of Health. Autoimmune Diseases. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Reviewed March 2016. https://www.niams.nih.gov/health-topics/autoimmune-diseases. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  3. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Immune Response. MedlinePlus. Reviewed January 23, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000821.htm. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  4. Endocrine Society. Type 1 Diabetes Linked to Gut Inflammation, Bacteria Changes. Endocrine.org. Published January 19, 2017. https://www.endocrine.org/news-and-advocacy/news-room/2017/type-1-diabetes-linked-to-gut-inflammation-bacteria-changes. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  5. American Thyroid Association. Graves’ Disease. Thyroid.org. Date unknown. https://www.thyroid.org/graves-disease/. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  6. Lupus Foundation of America. I Have Symptoms of Lupus, but a Negative ANA Test. Can I Still Have Lupus? Lupus.org. Updated April 17, 2022. https://www.lupus.org/resources/i-have-symptoms-of-lupus-but-a-negative-ana-test-can-i-still-have-lupus. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  7. National Institutes of Health. Autoimmune Disease. National Cancer Institute. Date unknown. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/autoimmune-disease. Accessed July 21, 2022.
  8. Kallinich T, Gattorno M, Grattan C E, et al. Unexplained recurrent fever: When is autoinflammation the explanation? Allergy. 2013;68(3):285-296. doi:10.1111/all.12084. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  9. Yale Medicine. Skin Lupus and Scleroderma. YaleMedicine.org. Date unknown. https://www.yalemedicine.org/conditions/autoimmune-skin-disorders. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  10. Williams R. Why lymph nodes grow. J Exp Med. 2006;203(8):1835. doi:10.1084/jem.2038iti2. Published August 7, 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2118362/. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  11. National Institutes of Health. Autoimmune Diseases. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Reviewed May 31, 2022. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/conditions/autoimmune/index.cfm. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  12. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Autoimmune Disorders. MedlinePlus. Updated September 29, 2021. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000816.htm. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  13. National Institutes of Health. Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Date unknown. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  14. National Institutes of Health. Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Reviewed October 2020. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/symptoms-causes. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  15. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. What Is MS? NationalMSSociety.org. Date unknown. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/What-is-MS. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  16. National Institutes of Health. Myasthenia Gravis Fact Sheet. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Updated April 25, 2022. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/patient-caregiver-education/fact-sheets/myasthenia-gravis-fact-sheet. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  17. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). CDC.gov. Reviewed July 27, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/basics/rheumatoid-arthritis.html. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  18. Harvard Medical School. Ulcerative Colitis. Harvard Health Publishing. Published December 29, 2014. https://www.health.harvard.edu/digestive-health/ulcerative-colitis-overview. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  19. National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Other Conditions to Rule Out. NationalMSSociety. Date unknown. https://www.nationalmssociety.org/Symptoms-Diagnosis/Other-Conditions-to-Rule-Out. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  20. Global Autoimmune Institute. About Autoimmune Disease: 7 Risk Factors for Autoimmune Disease. AutoimmuneInstitute. Updated November 11, 2021. https://www.autoimmuneinstitute.org/7-risk-factors-for-autoimmune-disease/. Accessed July 22, 2022.
  21. Tsigalou C, Vallianou N, Dalamaga M. Autoantibody production in obesity: Is there evidence for a link between obesity and autoimmunity? Curr Obes Rep. 2020;9(3):245-254. doi:10.1007/s13679-020-00397-8. Accessed August 2, 2022.