16 Symptoms of Immune System Problems

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.

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.

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4. Fatigue

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.

6. Headaches

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.

7. Rash

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.

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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.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 5, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

University of Rochester Medical Center, “Disorders of the Immune System.”

Office on Women’s Health, US Department of Health and Human Services, “Autoimmune Diseases Fact Sheet.”

American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, “Recurrent Infections May Signal Immunodeficiencies.”

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, “Autoimmune Diseases.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Hygiene-Related Diseases: Diarrhea.”

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “Vasculitis Syndromes of the Central and Peripheral Nervous Symptoms Fact Sheet.”

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Pathology, “Autoimmune Disease Research Center: Frequently Asked Questions.”

The Johns Hopkins Lupus Center, “Signs, Symptoms and Co-occuring Conditions.”

University of Washington Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, “Fatigue.”

National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.”

National Institutes of Health, “Red Itchy Rash? Get the Skinny on Dermatitis.”

World Allergy Organization, “Diagnostic Approach to the Adult With Suspected Immune Deficiency.”

University of Maryland Medical Center, “Photodermatitis.”

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, “Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS.)”

University of Florida Health, “Raynaud’s Phenomenon.”

University of Michigan Health System, “Difficulty Swallowing (Dysphagia.)”

The IBS Treatment Center, “Constipation.”

National Eye Institute, “Facts About Dry Eye.”

NIH News in Health: “Dry Eyes and Mouth?” March 2012.

Review of Optometry, “When Autoimmune Disease Initiates Dry Eye.”

Lupus Research Institute, “Lupus and Your Skin.”

Arthritis Foundation, “Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms.”

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