When your immune system is on point, it’s a lifesaver. But as good as it may be, it’s not perfect. Sometimes, this group of special cells, tissues, and organs doesn’t act the way it should.
If it kicks into action too often, you may get a condition like allergies, asthma, or eczema. Or if your immune system starts to attack your body instead of safeguarding it, you could have an autoimmune disorder like rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes. Other autoimmune conditions include celiac disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and psoriatic arthritis.
At least 80 illnesses are caused by immune system problems. They can all cause inflammation. But do you know the other warning signs?
Keep in mind that these possible clues can happen for many other reasons. To figure out what’s going on with your health, you’ll want to see your doctor.
1. Cold Hands
If your blood vessels are inflamed, it can be harder for your fingers, toes, ears, and nose to keep warm. The skin in these areas may turn white, then blue, when you’re exposed to the cold. Once blood flow returns, the skin may then turn red.
Doctors call this “Raynaud’s phenomenon.” Immune system problems can cause it, but so can other things, including smoking, some prescription drugs, and conditions that affect your arteries.
2. Bathroom Problems
Diarrhea that lasts more than 2 to 4 weeks can be a warning sign that your immune system is harming the lining of your small intestine or digestive tract.
Constipation is a concern, too. If your bowel movements are hard to pass, very firm, or look like they’re made up of small rabbit pellets, your immune system may be forcing your intestine to slow down. Other possible causes include bacteria, viruses, and other health conditions.
3. Dry Eyes
If you have an autoimmune disorder, that means your immune system attacks your body instead of defending it. Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are two examples.
Many people who have an autoimmune disorder find that they have dry eyes. You might feel a sandy, gritty feeling like something is in your eye. Or you may notice pain, redness, a stringy discharge, or blurred vision. Some people find they can’t cry even when they’re upset.
Feeling extremely tired, like you do when you have the flu, could mean something’s going on with your body’s defenses. Sleep is unlikely to help. Your joints or muscles can ache, too. Again, there could be many other reasons why you feel this way.
5. Mild Fever
If you’re running a higher temperature than normal, it could be that your immune system is starting to overwork. That can happen due to an oncoming infection or because you're starting to have a flare of an autoimmune condition.
In some cases, headaches can be related to the immune system. For example, it could be vasculitis, which is inflammation of a blood vessel caused by an infection or autoimmune disease.
Your skin is your body’s first barrier against germs. How it looks and feels can reflect how well your immune system is doing its job.
Itchy, dry, red skin is a common symptom of inflammation. So is a rash that is painful or doesn’t clear up. People with lupus often get a butterfly-shaped rash across their nose and cheeks.
8. Joints Ache
When the lining inside your joints becomes inflamed, the area around them is tender to the touch. It might also be stiff or swollen, and it can happen with more than one joint. You may notice that it’s worse in the morning.
9. Patchy Hair Loss
Sometimes the immune system attacks hair follicles. If you lose hair on your scalp, face, or other parts of your body, you could have a condition called alopecia areata. Strands or clumps of hair coming out can also be a symptom of lupus.
10. Repeated Infections
If you need to take antibiotics more than twice a year (four times for children), your body may not be able to attack germs well on its own.
Other red flags: Chronic sinus infections, being sick with more than four ear infections in a year (for anyone over the age of 4), or having pneumonia more than once.
11. Sensitive to Sun
People with an autoimmune disorder sometimes have an allergic reaction to ultraviolet (UV) rays called photodermatitis. You may get blisters, a rash, or scaly patches after being in the sun. Or you may get chills, a headache, or nausea.
12. Tingling or Numbness in Your Hands and Feet
It can be completely innocent. But in some cases it can mean that your body is attacking nerves that send signals to your muscles. People who have Guillain-Barre syndrome, for instance, may have numbness that starts in their legs then moves up to their arms and chest.
Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP) has symptoms similar to the demyelinating form of GBS (called acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, or AIDP), but while GBS lasts two weeks to 30 days. CIDP lasts much longer.
13. Trouble Swallowing
If you have a tough time getting food down, your esophagus (the tube that carries food from your mouth to your stomach) could be swollen or too weak to work well. Some people feel like food is stuck in their throat or chest. Others gag or choke when they swallow. One of the possible causes can be a problem with your immune system.
14. Unexplained Weight Change
You find yourself gaining extra pounds even though your eating habits and workouts haven’t changed. Or the number on your scale may drop for no clear reason. It's possible this is because of damage to your thyroid gland from an autoimmune disease.
15. White Patches
Sometimes your immune system decides to fight the skin’s pigment-making cells, called melanocytes. If so, you’ll start to see white patches of skin on your body.
16. Yellowing of Your Skin or Eyes
Called jaundice, it may mean that your immune system is attacking and destroying healthy liver cells. That can lead to a condition called autoimmune hepatitis.