There are many different types of autoimmune diseases, and some are more common than others. While these diseases may differ in which part of the body is most affected, the mechanism behind most autoimmune diseases are the same. It is a condition where the body’s immune system attacks certain tissues or organs thereby injuring and eventually damaging it.
Read more on types of autoimmune diseases.
The immune system protects the body when infectious or toxic agents enter the body. This includes viruses, bacteria and other microbes as well as toxic chemicals and foreign objects. The purpose of immune activity is to isolate, neutralize and/or destroy the threat. However, these same immune defenses can pose a significant threat when it is directed at the body’s own tissues and organs.
The exact reason why autoimmune diseases occu r is not clearly understood. It is believed to be due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Genes may predispose a person to developing certain autoimmune diseases. This is then triggered by certain infections, which is most likely viral in nature. Other factors like hormones may also play a role in developing autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune diseases are not allergies or infections. An allergy is where the immune system abnormally reacts to the presence of certain harmless substances (allergens). Infections are where certain viruses, bacteria, fungi or protozoa damage the body and the immune system responds to destroy the invader. Autoimmune diseases are not caused by any agent or substance but the immune system nevertheless targets parts of the body.
Read more on facts about autoimmune diseases.
Non-Specific Signs and Symptoms
Autoimmune diseases can sometimes be difficult to identify. In the early stages there may be non-specific symptoms and relevant blood tests may not always be positive. Non-specific signs and symptoms means that the signs and symptoms are common to many different conditions and do not indicate the exact cause or problem. Therefore many autoimmune diseases may not be identified in the early stages. Three common non-specific symptoms of autoimmune diseases are fever, fatigue and malaise.
A fever is one of the common signs of an autoimmune disease. Most of the time fevers are due to infections but can arise with other non-infectious diseases like cancer and autoimmune diseases. The fever may be one of the earliest signs of an autoimmune disease and occur without any other signs and symptoms. The cause may be difficult to identify and it is labeled as a fever of unknown origin (FUO). However, symptoms gradually develop over time and along with blood tests, an autoimmune disease can eventually be confirmed.
Fatigue is another common sign of autoimmune diseases. However, it is also common in a number of different conditions. As with fever, fatigue is one of the earliest signs of an autoimmune disease. It gradually worsens as the disease progresses. When fatigue is accompanied by a fever of unknown origin then an autoimmune disease should be considered as a possible cause.
Malaise is a general feeling of being unwell. It is another sign that may occur early in an autoimmune disease and persist throughout the condition, especially when flareups occur. Many people associate it with common infections like the flu and may describe feeling ‘fluish’. Malaise is another non-specific symptom and can occur with many other conditions. Therefore it should not be immediately considered as a sign of autoimmune disease.
Specific Signs and Symptoms
Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of autoimmune disease. Some of the more specific signs and symptoms of the more common types of autoimmune diseases has been discussed below.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints, mainly the small joints like those of the fingers. It causes inflammation of the joint lining (synovial lining) thereby affecting joint function.
- Joint stiffness worse in the morning.
- Pain and tenderness of the joints.
- Swelling and redness of affected joints.
- Nodules and joint deformities in advanced cases.
Diabetes Mellitus Type 1
Type 1 diabetes mellitus is where the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas are destroyed. The lack of insulin impairs the body’s ability to regulate the blood glucose levels. The high blood glucose levels can damage cells.
- Frequent urination
- Increased thirst
- Unintentional weight loss
- Extreme hunger
- Blurred vision
Hashimoto’s disease is an autoimmune condition where the immune system targets the thyroid gland. Inflammation of the thyroids gland affects its functioning. As a result, the thyroid gland becomes underactive (hypothyroidism).
- Constant tiredness
- Moderate weight gain
- Brittle nails and hair
- Dry skin
- Sensitivity to cold
Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a condition where the immune system attacks the wall of the gastrointestinal tract. In one type, Crohn’s disease, any part of the gastrointestinal tract may be affected. In the other type known as ulcerative colitis, only the colon and rectum are affected.
- Abdominal cramping and pain
- Diarrhea often with mucus and sometimes blood in the stool
- Loss of appetite
- Unintentional weight loss
Psoriasis is an autoimmune condition that affects the skin. It increases production of the skin cells and older cells may not slough off thereby leading to inflammation and thickening of the skin.
- Red skin rash which is usually thick and with silvery-white scales.
- Excessively dry skin which tends to crack and bleed.
- Persistent and severe itching.
- Joint symptoms similar to rheumatoid arthritis may be present in psoriatic arthritis.
Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), also known as lupus, is where the autoimmune system may attack any tissue or organ in the body. It is one of the more serious types of autoimmune diseases can lead to multi-organ failure and even result in death. Signs and symptoms may vary depending on the organs that are most affected. Joint symptoms similar to rheumatoid arthritis are common. A butterfly (malar) rash on the cheeks and bridge of the nose is a characterisic sign of lupus.
Addison’s disease is where the immune system attacks and destroys the adrenal glands that lie on top of the kidneys. As a result the glands become underactive and the level of adrenal hormones decreases. These hormones have a wide range of effects on the body and symptoms may therefore vary significantly. Disturbances in blood pressure and blood glucose levels, darkening of the skin, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and weight loss are some of the symptoms.