Autoimmune Diseases | Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of autoimmune diseases?

There's no single set of symptoms that covers the spectrum of autoimmune disease. The most common symptoms tend to be nonspecific, meaning they could be caused by a condition that has nothing to do with the immune system. This can make it harder for doctors to diagnose autoimmune diseases. As a result, a child may need a number of tests to narrow down the possible cause for their symptoms.

Signs that a child may be having an immune system problem include:

  • low-grade fever
  • fatigue or chronic tiredness
  • dizziness
  • weight loss
  • rashes and skin lesions
  • stiffness in the joints
  • brittle hair or hair loss
  • dry eyes and/or mouth
  • general "unwell" feeling

Recurring fever, fatigue, rashes, weight loss and so on are not concrete proof that a child has an autoimmune disease, but they do mean the child is ill and needs medical attention. A pediatrician can refer the family to a specialist, likely a pediatric rheumatologist, if they suspect an autoimmune disease.

What causes autoimmune disease?

The exact reason that some children's immune systems begin attacking their own bodies is still a mystery. We do know that autoimmune diseases are not contagious, and they don't appear to be caused by any one thing in particular. Instead, scientists believe there's a multi-step process at work:

  • Heredity: Certain genes passed down by parents make some children susceptible to an autoimmune disease.
  • Environmental factors: An autoimmune disease may not reveal itself until it's triggered by something like an infection or exposure to certain toxins or drugs.
  • Hormonal factors: Given that many autoimmune diseases tend to affect adolescent girls and young women, certain female hormones may also play a role in when these illnesses flare up.

Researchers are now working to discover which genes are involved and how they interact. They are also investigating a number of potential environmental and hormonal triggers so that one day it may be possible to cure, or even prevent, autoimmune diseases.