What Are Autoimmune Disorders?

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An autoimmune disorder or disease occurs when the immune system attacks healthy cells, tissues, or organs by mistake. Inflammation is an underlying symptom of any autoimmune condition. Other common signs and symptoms of most autoimmune conditions include fatigue, fever, joint pain, or muscle aches.

Getting a diagnosis for an autoimmune disease can be challenging. Although autoimmune conditions are unique, their symptoms can look similar to other health conditions (autoimmune and non-autoimmune). That said, getting an accurate diagnosis requires a multistep approach that includes a physical exam and multiple lab tests.

There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases and each condition is different. Researchers do not know the exact cause of autoimmune diseases. However, they do suspect certain genetic and environmental factors play a role in the development of symptoms.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for autoimmune diseases at this time. But, treatments are available to help you manage your condition and reduce symptoms. Your healthcare provider will determine a treatment plan based on the exact condition you have and the severity of your symptoms.

Types of Autoimmune Disorders

An autoimmune disease can affect bodily tissues or organs in different ways: the destruction of body tissue, changes in organ function, and abnormal growth of an organ. Autoimmune diseases can affect organs and tissues such as:

  • Blood vessels
  • Connective tissues
  • Endocrine glands such as the thyroid or pancreas
  • Joints
  • Muscles
  • Red blood cells
  • Skin

There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases. The type of disease you have will depend on the part of the body your immune system is attacking. This is not an exhaustive list, but some autoimmune diseases and their main symptoms include:

  • Alopecia areata: The immune system attacks hair follicles, causing patchy hair loss on the scalp, face, or other areas of the body.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system attacks the lining of the joints and other parts of the body like the lungs and eyes, causing joint pain and swelling.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus): The immune system damages the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, and other parts of the body.  
  • Type 1 diabetes: The immune system attacks and destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.
  • Multiple sclerosis: The immune system destroys the protective coating around the nerves, causing damage to the spinal cord and brain.
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Chronic inflammation of the digestive tract. The most common types are Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis (UC). 
  • Vitiligo: The immune system destroys the cells that give your skin its color. This causes white patches on areas exposed to the sun.
  • Psoriasis: The immune system attacks the skin cells, leading to raised and inflamed patches on the skin.
  • Hashimoto's thyroiditis: The immune system attacks thyroid cells causing the body to not produce enough thyroid hormone in the bloodstream.


Your immune system is a network of cells, tissues, and organs. This network helps your body fight viruses, bacteria, and other harmful or foreign substances. As a result, the immune system protects you from infection and disease.

The immune system can tell the difference between self and nonself: what is a part of your body and what cells are foreign. However, when a person develops an autoimmune disease, the immune system makes autoantibodies that attack healthy cells and tissues by mistake. As this is happening, your immune system isn't able to distinguish which cells are healthy and which cells are harmful, making it difficult for your body to fight infections.

Why your body begins to attack healthy cells is currently not well understood. However, researchers have found that a combination of factors can trigger an autoimmune disease to start. These risk factors include:

  • Sex: Autoimmune diseases are more common in women than in men.
  • Family history: Inheriting certain genes (and not the condition itself) can make it more likely to develop an autoimmune disease.
  • Environmental exposure: Sunlight, chemicals, and viral or bacterial infections are linked to many autoimmune diseases.
  • Ethnicity: Some autoimmune disease affects certain groups more severely. For example, lupus is most severe for people who are African American or Hispanic. 


Each person’s experience with an autoimmune disease is different. Two people with the same autoimmune disease may have an entirely different set of symptoms. That's why diagnosis and treatment for autoimmune disorders can sometimes be so difficult.

Symptoms of autoimmune disease depend on the tissue, organ, or part of the body that your immune system is attacking. One of the most common symptoms of any autoimmune disorder is inflammation, which may cause redness, swelling, and pain. Other common signs and symptoms include:

Symptoms of autoimmune diseases range from mild to severe. These symptoms come and go with varying intensity. A flare (or, flare-up) happens when your symptoms appear suddenly and severely for some time. After a flare, the severity of your symptoms may decrease or even disappear for a while. This is known as remission.


Although autoimmune conditions are unique, they share many of the same symptoms. In certain cases, some autoimmune diseases have signs and symptoms that are similar to health conditions that are not autoimmune-related. Because of this, healthcare providers often have a tough time diagnosing an autoimmune disease.

Getting a diagnosis for an autoimmune often requires a multistep approach. After a physical exam, your healthcare provider may start with lab tests such as a complete blood count (CBC) and a comprehensive metabolic panel (CMP). Other lab tests may include:

  • Condition-specific autoantibody tests such as antinuclear antibody (ANA), rheumatoid factor, and anti-double-stranded DNA (anti-dsDNA) to test for certain conditions
  • C-reactive protein (CRP) test or erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) to check for inflammation
  • Urinalysis which uses a sample of your urine

A delayed diagnosis is a stressful process for people seeking help with their symptoms. Unfortunately, this is not uncommon. If you believe your symptoms are in line with an autoimmune condition, take the following steps to advocate for your care:

  • Share your family health history with your healthcare provider
  • Keep a record of all of your symptoms, when they start, and how long they last
  • If possible, see a specialist healthcare provider who treats the part of your body that your symptoms are affecting the most
  • Get a second or third opinion and see another healthcare provider if your symptoms are dismissed by your primary care provider


Unfortunately, researchers have not yet found a cure for autoimmune conditions. However, treat can help reduce symptoms and help you manage your condition.

Your exact treatment plan will depend on the condition that you have. The type of medication you’ll take will also depend on your symptoms and how severe they are. Regardless of the autoimmune condition you are diagnosed with, the goals of treatment are to:

  • Reduce symptoms
  • Slow the progression of your condition
  • Maintain your body’s ability to fight disease
  • Improve your quality of life

The first line of treatment for several autoimmune conditions is medication. These medications target the immune system and help stop your immune system from attacking or destroying healthy cells. Your provider can prescribe you different medications, which can range from pills, injections, and intravenous (IV) infusions.

Treatments may target the whole or specific parts of the immune system. These medications may include, but are not limited to:

  • Azulfidine (sulfasalazine)
  • Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine)
  • Imuran (azathioprine)
  • Otrexup (methotrexate
  • Steroids such as prednisone or methylprednisolone

Other medications target specific cells of the immune system. Depending on the cells that your immune system is attacking, your provider may prescribe one of the following medications:

  • Anti-TNF biologics (TNF inhibitors): Remicade (infliximab), Humira (adalimumab), and Enbrel (etanercept)
  • B Cell growth factor targeting biologics: Benlysta (belimumab)
  • Anti-IL-4/IL-13 biologics: Dupixent (dupilumab)
  • Anti-IL-17 biologics: Cosentyx (secukinumab) and Taltz (ixekizumab)
  • Lymphocyte (white blood cell) movement: Entyvio (vedolizumab)
  • JAK inhibitors: Xeljanz (​​tofacitinib) and Rinvoq (upadacitinib)

Outside of medication, your provider may also recommend certain lifestyle changes depending on the exact condition you have. These changes may include a new nutrition plan, gentle exercise, complementary medicine techniques such as acupuncture or yoga, and stress management.

A Quick Review

When a person develops an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. Common signs and symptoms of most autoimmune disorders include inflammation, fatigue, fever, joint pain, and muscle aches. 

Getting diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can be a long process. Healthcare providers often have a tough time diagnosing autoimmune diseases because symptoms can look very similar to other health conditions. 

If you believe your symptoms are related to an autoimmune disease, advocate for yourself by keeping track of your symptoms and seeking a second opinion. Once you have a diagnosis, your healthcare provider will create a treatment plan based on your condition and the severity of your symptoms.

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8 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  5. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Autoimmune diseases.

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  7. MedlinePlus. Immune system and disorders.

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