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These are the First Signs of an Autoimmune Disease

Three major signs of an autoimmune disease to watch out for, according to experts. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Between juggling career, family, friends and life, it's easy to feel worn down, achy and not like yourself at times, but are these common symptoms from having a busy schedule or linked to an undiagnosed autoimmune disease? There's more than 100 different types of autoimmune diseases and according to John Hopkins Medicine, an estimated 23.5 million Americans have one. "The immune system is the equivalent of a country's Armed Forces, an entity with the sworn duty to protect and defend the homeland.  The Armed Forces are never supposed to attack their own country, and likewise, your immune system is never supposed to attack your own body.  When your immune system does attack 'self', we refer to this condition as an Autoimmune Disease,"  Dr. Michael Hirt, a Board Certified Nutrition from Harvard University and Board Certified in Internal Medicine and with The Center for Integrative Medicine in Tarzana California tells us. Read below to find out signs of an autoimmune disease to watch out for and why they're sometimes hard to diagnose—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why are Autoimmune Diseases Difficult to Diagnose?

happy doctor with patient

Dr. Hirt explains, "Each specific Autoimmune Disease is associated with a pattern of self-attack on specific body tissues.  Just like when the body attacks Covid, the self-attack generates antibodies against its specific target, such as joints, skin, hair, or any internal organ.  Since the body is made up of dozens of types of tissues, there are dozens of types of Autoimmune antibodies.  As a result, there are more than 80 different Autoimmune diseases, and your healthcare provider needs to figure out which of these to test you for in order to come up with the proper diagnosis.  For example, Sjogren's disease (pronounced 'sho-gruns') is a fairly uncommon condition that can cause dry mouth because this disease attacks and dries out your saliva glands.  When you complain to your provider about your unusually dry mouth, they might rightly assume you have a more common cause of dry mouth such as allergies, medication side effects, dental issues, or dehydration.  Since the immune system is never supposed to attack your own salivary glands, your provider might not consider and run tests for a Sjogren's diagnosis at your first couple of visits for this common complaint.  As the symptoms of many Autoimmune diseases are the same as other more benign medical conditions, the diagnosis of Autoimmune diseases can be delayed while your symptoms are being ascribed to something else."


Who is at Risk for an Autoimmune Disease?

woman consulting with her female doctor

Dr. Hirt says, "Any country with an Armed Forces is at risk for a coup d'etat, and similarly, any person with a functioning immune system is at risk for an Autoimmune disease.  You may be more likely to get an Autoimmune disease if other people in your family have a history of Autoimmune diseases, if you are heavily exposed to certain chemicals, if you smoke or vape tobacco, if you consistently eat an unhealthy diet, or if you are under significant stress."


How Can an Autoimmune Affect Daily Life and Overall Health

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

According to Dr. Hirt, "Our general good health relies on each of our organs working just as they were designed.  While our body's tissues are quite strong, the immune system is even stronger and can destroy anything that it targets.  So, when your own immune system has parts of you in its crosshairs, those tissues that are being attacked will not function properly, such as your knees which could affect your ability to walk.  Additionally, the immune attack itself generates lots of different inflammation-triggering molecules much like when the immune system attacks a cold or flu virus.  These inflammatory molecules can cause 'common cold' symptoms including headache, night sweats, fatigue, brain fog, and even low grade fevers.  Experiencing these miserable symptoms for weeks and months can ruin your quality of life."




"If you have a prolonged bout of unexplained diarrhea, you could have an Autoimmune disease," Dr. Hirt shares. "Everyone can have a day or two of very loose or liquidy bowel movements after eating some food that was spoiled or hard to digest.  But diarrhea that continues for weeks or is associated with bloody stools and abdominal pain can be a sign of Autoimmune diseases like Crohn's disease, Ulcerative Colitis, or Microscopic Colitis."


Scalp or Skin Conditions

Mature woman inspecting her skin in front of the bathroom mirror.

Dr. Hirt states, "If you have red, non-itchy, flaky skin patches in your scalp or on your knees, elbows or genitals, you could have an Autoimmune disease.  These flaky patches can be a sign of Psoriasis, an Autoimmune disease caused by the immune system attacking the skin.  Unlike eczema that typically itches or dry skin patches that resolve with a good moisturizer, psoriatic patches stand 1-2 millimeters proud of the skin surface and will not resolve with the over-the-counter creams that soothe eczema and dry skin."


Joint Stiffness

woman holding her hand

Dr. Hirt tells us, "If you have unexplained joint stiffness in the mornings that lasts more than 30 minutes, you may have an Autoimmune disease.  It's one thing to wake up with your old-football injured knee feeling stiff some mornings, but when the other knee also inexplicably gets stiff at the same time, that could indicate the presence of an Autoimmune disease called Rheumatoid Arthritis.   Autoimmune diseases tend to attack the same joint on both sides of the body at the same time.  This unusual pattern of attack is not typical of most injuries or other common joint diseases like gout or infections that tend to affect one joint on just one side of the body.  These symmetrical patterns of symptoms may be your first clue that something more significant is going on, like the start of an Autoimmune condition."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather