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Signs Your Body Is Attacking Itself, Say Doctors

There could be a wide range of symptoms.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

The immune system is the body's first line of defense—when infection-causing pathogens invade, the immune system springs into action, launching substances designed to neutralize the invaders. But that process can go haywire, and the immune system can actually attack the body's own tissues and organs. That's what's known as autoimmune disease. There are several of them, and their symptoms can be wide-ranging, from uncomfortable to potentially debilitating. These are the most common signs your body is attacking itself, according to doctors. Read on to find out more—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Joint Pain

woman holding her hand

Could be: Rheumatoid arthritis

When the immune system attacks the linings of the joints, rheumatoid arthritis can develop, causing painful swelling. Smaller joints tend to be affected first, followed by larger ones; about 40 percent of people affected by rheumatoid arthritis experience symptoms that don't involve the joints, such as issues with the eyes or skin. "In some people, the condition can damage a wide variety of body systems, including the skin, eyes, lungs, heart and blood vessels," says the Mayo Clinic. 



Young upset stressed woman suffering from abdominal and stomach pain during menstruation, PMS in room at home. Inflammation and infection. Food poisoning

Could be: Lupus, Arthritis

"The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling," says the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Inflammation is a hallmark of a number of autoimmune conditions, the most common being lupus, a complex disease most often diagnosed in women between the ages of 15 and 44. It has a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, fever, joint pain, stiffness and swelling, and a facial rash.


Numbness or Tingling


Could be: Multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body's immune system to mistakenly attack its own healthy cells, damaging the sheath that covers the nerves. This can lead to various neurological symptoms. Numbness and tingling is one of the most common first signs, doctors say, as are vision problems (which tend to affect only one eye). Other symptoms include balance problems, trouble walking, stiffness or weakness in the limbs, and fatigue. 

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Stomach Problems

man in gray shirt holding stomach
Shutterstock / Taras Mikhailyuk

Could be: Crohn's disease

Crohn's disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBS) in which the immune system attacks the digestive tract, causing chronic inflammation. That can lead to abdominal pain, diarrhea, blood in the stool, fatigue, weight loss, and even malnutrition. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and might involve any part of the small or large intestine. It's treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, immunosuppressants and antibiotics.

RELATED: 6 Signs You Might Have Multiple Sclerosis


Skin Issues

Woman Scratching an itch

Could be: Psoriasis, Lupus

Skin-related symptoms are another common sign of autoimmune disorders. A red "butterfly rash" that develops over the nose and both cheeks is a common sign in lupus. In psoriasis, the body's skin cells go into overproduction mode and build up on the skin in rough, red patches or silvery scales. In psoriatic arthritis, joint pain, redness and swelling accompany the scaling. Both conditions are treatable with medication.

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High Blood Sugar

Diabetic woman taking blood sample with lancet pen at home.

Could be: Type 1 diabetes

Type 1 diabetes develops when the immune system destroys cells in the pancreas that are responsible for generating insulin, the hormone that helps the body process sugar and turn it into energy. Without that processor, blood sugar can rise to dangerous levels, damaging blood vessels and increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and blindness. Although it's most commonly diagnosed in childhood, type 1 diabetes can develop at any age. Other symptoms include frequent thirst, increased urination, fatigue, constant hunger, and intentional weight loss. 

And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Michael Martin
Michael Martin is a New York City-based writer and editor. Read more about Michael