The 5 Key Symptoms Of Autoimmune Disease Can Easily Fly Under The Radar, Experts Say

by Sophie McEvoy
Sergey Filimonov/Stocksy

When you're coming down with the cold or flu, you're greeted with symptoms that are almost immediately recognisable. Runny nose, raspy voice, blocked up sinuses — all the good stuff. But there are some conditions that can be a little harder to pinpoint, as the symptoms are common in other illnesses too. Autoimmune diseases are some of those conditions. I spoke to immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi to find out what symptoms could be a sign of an autoimmune disorder.

According to Macciochi, autoimmune diseases (or autoimmunity) are conditions where your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake. "Immune cells (our white blood cells) carry out inflammatory tasks to try and remove something in our body that they have mistakenly identified as dangerous," she explains. The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association states there are more than 100 conditions that can be identified as autoimmune disorders and while they can range from being systematic to organ specific, "they all result from a deregulation of our immune system but they may have different environmental triggers and genetic associations," Dr Macciochi says.

Many of these conditions share similar symptoms and can often overlap with one another. Dr Macchiochi tells me, "The early symptoms of many autoimmune diseases are very similar, but can also be confused with many other conditions. These can include fatigue, achy muscles, swelling and redness, low-grade fever, trouble concentrating, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, hair loss, and skin rashes."

These symptoms do not necessarily point towards an autoimmune disorder, but if you experience one or more of them Dr Macciochi advises that they are "definitely worth getting checked out," and especially if they continue to persist over a period of time.

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Due to the broad scope of autoimmune disorders and their tendency to overlap with one another, they are often difficult to diagnose. As Dr Macciochi says, "most autoimmune diseases do not have a simple test that will help with diagnosis." She adds: "Symptoms often develop slowly and subtly [and] they are also often vague and diffuse."

It's also just a case of making sure that you are in tune with your body and are able to identify when something isn't right. After all, when it comes to knowing what your body feels like, you're the number one expert.

So, if you find that you're experiencing certain symptoms similar to those associated with "more common ailments like depression, a viral infection, or run-of-the-mill stress" as VeryWell Health puts it, you should pay a visit to your GP. Here's what to look out for.



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This can be a pretty subjective symptom, but chronic fatigue can be a major factor in diagnosing autoimmune disorders. According to a study published in BioMed Central, fatigue can often be a symptom of inflammatory diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis. This sort of tiredness does not improve with rest, because it's pathological rather than physiological as your body is “devoting resources to mount an immune response,” as explained on health blog Restoring Autoimmune Health.


Stiffness & Joint Pain

It’s a given that you’ll experience some sort of stiffness or joint pain from time to time, but when it starts to become a regular occurrence — especially in a specific body part like the wrist or hands — it can start to impact on your day-to-day life. Stiffness and joint pain are usually most common in autoimmune disorders that effect the body tissue, such as rheumatoid arthritis.

According to Mayo Clinic, this is due to your immune system mistakenly attacking your body tissue which can lead to stiffness, joint pain, and inflammation.


Skin Changes

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As the skin is the largest external organ of the body, it’s not surprising that a number of symptoms that prelude autoimmune disorders can lead to changes in how your skin looks and feels. According to the Skin Wellness Center, these can either be symptoms of a different disorder or can be the result of a condition that directly affects the skin like scleroderma, vitiligo, psoriasis, or dermatomyositis.



Inflammation is the body’s way of protecting itself from bacteria and viruses by producing white blood cells, according to WebMD. If an autoimmune disease is present, the immune system will begin the inflammation process to fight off the “invading” organisms even though there’s nothing to fight. As Dr Macciochi explains, "all autoimmune diseases have a component of inflammation which is why many of the symptoms are shared."

Inflammation can also be a symptom of sprains and strains and other conditions that are unrelated to autoimmunity, but it’s definitely something to keep your GP aware of.


Swollen Glands

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Whenever your body has fought an infection, you’ve probably noticed lumps on the side of your neck (and your armpits, chin, and groin) that can often be swollen and tender. According to the NHS these are known as lymph glands or lymph nodes, and they “swell near an infection to help your body fight it.”

However, problems can arise if they haven’t gone down within three weeks, they feel hard and don’t move when touched, or they’re swollen when you have no other signs of an illness. Autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, and sarcoidosis often cause swollen lymph nodes, according to autoimmunity research foundation Marshall Protocol Knowledge Base (MPKB).


Whatever symptoms may manifest, Dr Macciochi advises that "if you suspect anything or have a family history [of autoimmune disorder], it's always worth getting checked out as soon as possible." To learn more about immunology and autoimmunity, you can visit Dr Macciochi's website or follow her on Instagram @dr_jenna_macciochi.