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Sure Signs You Have an Autoimmune Disease

Infectious disease specialist shares five signs of an autoimmune disease to pay attention to. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

There's more than 100 different types of autoimmune diseases and according to John Hopkins Medicine, an estimated 23.5 million Americans have one. "Any disease caused by a person's immunity attacking healthy cells and tissues is autoimmune disease.  The immune system is our personal army whose job is to keep invaders out.  If the army starts attacking its own, we end up suffering the consequences of this destruction," Dr. Suman Radhakrishna, Director of Infectious Disease with Dignity Healthy California Hospital tells us. Oftentimes autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose because symptoms are subtle and easily overlooked or ignored, but knowing signs to look out for is key to finding a quicker diagnosis and getting treatment. Dr. Radhakrishna shares with us signals to pay attention to and who is at risk for an autoimmune disease. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Autoimmune Diseases Can Be Difficult to Diagnose

patient speaking with doctor

Dr. Radhakrishna says, "Our immune system is part of us, except for several abnormal/rogue cells which can be found in healthy asymptomatic individuals as well.  Symptoms of autoimmune diseases can be very nonspecific and could occur due to many reasons, not all of them suggesting illness.  Diagnosis is based on the presence of several of these abnormal immune cells in the setting of symptoms suggestive of autoimmune diseases. Sometimes the symptoms of autoimmune disease can be vague.  Suffering with no end in sight is frustrating and lack of validation often results in the wrong impression that this is a mental health issue.  Persons suffering from crippling disease and multiple organ damage feel trapped in their bodies.  In addition to physical restrictions these diseases take a mental toll as well. Autoimmune diseases also increase risk of heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, lung disease and cancer.  Regular follow-up with your health care provider and with specialists when appropriate will prevent complications from developing."


Who is at Risk for an Autoimmune Disease?

doctor checking heart with stethoscope

Dr. Radhakrishna explains, "Some of the risk factors for autoimmune diseases include female sex (~ 80% in women), genetics (other family members more likely to have autoimmune diseases), previous diagnosis of autoimmune disease (lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and others can overload), certain infections (Epstein Barr virus, COVID, Group A Strep infection), obesity, smoking and exposure to toxins (air pollutants, organic solvents), medications (certain blood pressure medications, cholesterol medications, antidepressants, etc)."


How Can an Autoimmune Affect Daily Life and Overall Health

pain. Chronic kidneys disease indicated with red spot on woman's body.

"Yes, autoimmune disease can affect both the quality of health as well as overall health," Dr. Radhakrishna states. "Pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, and fever can cause a person to feel drained and unable to work and carry on with daily activities.  Irreversible damage to organs such as joints, kidneys, and the brain can leave a person crippled and on dialysis." 




Dr. Radhakrishna says, "Fatigue – this is almost universal and very frustrating to patients and doctors.  This symptom is very difficult to quantify and there are many causes of fatigue that are not attributable to autoimmune diseases.  Lack of sleep, stress – physical and mental are commonly experienced by all of us and usually improve after the stressor is removed and sleep deficit is corrected. However, if fatigue persists in the setting of other symptoms, it is best to discuss it with your healthcare provider."


Joint Pain and Swelling


"Joint pain and swelling, which is often felt in the hands and large joints, can indicate an autoimmune disease,"  Dr. Radhakrishna explains. "Stiffness in the morning which improves during the day is also common.  Difficulty holding the toothbrush and brushing hair is uncommon. Please consult your healthcare provider.  Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent crippling arthritis and maintain quality of life."



Woman scratching arm indoors

Dr. Radhakrishna shares, "Rash on skin – Can be limited to sun-exposed areas or the entire body.  It can be flaky resembling psoriasis, intermittent or constant. If you notice a rash that recurs or persists, please discuss it with your healthcare provider."


GI Issues

Young woman suffers, writhes in abdominal pain lying on couch in living room at home interior

According to  Dr. Radhakrishna, "Abdominal pain and digestive complaints including diarrhea and constipation, nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite can be quite common due to inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.  Fluctuation in weight can be a consequence of this."


Fever and Swollen Glands

Woman being sick having flu lying on sofa looking at temperature on thermometer. Sick woman lying in bed with high fever.

Dr. Radhakrishna tells us, "Intermittent fever and swollen glands are often experienced.  These symptoms are again nonspecific and can be commonly seen. Please talk to your healthcare provider if these are recurring." 

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
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