You and your health: Why is my body attacking itself?

In the UK, there are four million people living with an autoimmune condition, whereby the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy tissues.

Normally, the immune system guards against germs such as bacteria and viruses. When it senses an invader, it sends out an army of fighter cells, aka the immune response. With an autoimmune condition, healthy cells and tissues get caught up in the response, affecting the joints, skin or organs.

Medics still don’t know for sure why the body attacks itself, but genetic and environmental factors are thought to contribute to a person’s likelihood of developing an autoimmune condition.

A higher number of women have an autoimmune condition, possibly due to increased hormone levels during childbearing years. Ethnicity can also play a part in someone having an increased risk of certain autoimmune conditions; lupus, for example, is more common in black and Asian backgrounds. Genetics can play a part, for instance if a close family member has multiple sclerosis, your risk will increase. Lifestyle can also impact a person’s risk; being overweight is linked to rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis.

There are more than 80 autoimmune conditions that all impact a person’s life differently. They can be difficult to diagnose, and some people can develop more than one.

General symptoms include:

  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain/swelling
  • Skin problems
  • Abdominal pain and digestive issues
  • Recurring fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Muscle aches
  • Pins and needles
  • Hair loss
  • Lack of concentration

Symptoms can flare up due to certain triggers, followed by periods of remission.

People with autoimmune conditions may need immunosuppressants or anti-inflammatory medication to control the immune system and inflammation. They may also be referred to a specialist to monitor their condition, such as a rheumatologist or endocrinologist.

Autoimmune disorders aren’t contagious and they don’t affect life expectancy, but chronic inflammation can increase the risk of conditions such as heart disease.

Here we look at some common autoimmune conditions:

Coeliac Disease

This is where the bowel’s surface becomes damaged from an adverse reaction to gluten found in wheat, barley and rye. It usually develops between eight and 12 months or aged 40-60. Overtime, people with coeliac don’t get enough nutrients, increasing the risk of osteoporosis and anaemia.

Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)

Conditions such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis that cause inflammation to the gastrointestinal tract. Usually starts before age 35 and symptoms can be abdominal pain, bloody diarrhoea, weight loss and anaemia. If symptoms are severe and don’t improve with medication, surgery may be necessary to remove or repair parts of the gut. There is also an increased risk of bowel cancer and people with IBD should undergo regular endoscopic surveillance.


This affects the whole body including the joints, skin, blood vessels and organs. A rash on the cheeks and nose is a common symptom, as are joint pain, extreme fatigue and blood clotting issues. Some people with lupus may get recurring headaches, mouth ulcers and be sensitive to light. In most severe cases, inflammation can cause life-threatening damage to the heart, lungs, brain or kidneys, so regular check-ups are advised.

Multiple Sclerosis (MS)

MS damages the myelin sheath which protects the nerve cells in the central nervous system. Damage to the nerves in the brain and spinal cord slows down the brain’s messages to the body. Symptoms can be mild or severe, short or long lasting, and are usually neurological including numbness, muscle weakness, loss of balance and movement, and problems with vision and speech.


This is where skin cells grow too quickly, leading to red and inflamed or silver scaly patches commonly found on the scalp, elbows, knees, torso or limbs. Topical ointments and shampoos can help, as too can controlled exposure to UV light. People with psoriasis can also develop psoriatic arthritis which is swelling and stiffness in the joints.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

This is where joints are attacked, leading to redness, warmth, soreness, stiffness and hard bumps over joints. Usually starts in the 30s and can affect any joint, but most commonly hands, wrists, feet, ankles, knees and elbows. Makes daily living harder as fine and gross motor skills can be impacted.

Sjogren’s Syndrome

This attacks the glands that lubricate the eyes and mouth, leading to main symptoms of dry eyes and dry mouth which can be alleviated with eye drops, mouth sprays and lozenges. Other symptoms may be pain or swelling in the salivary glands, rashes, or muscle and joint pain.

Type 1 Diabetes

Unlike type 2 diabetes which is usually caused by lifestyle factors, type 1 is an autoimmune condition that cannot be prevented. The body attacks the cells in the pancreas which make insulin; the hormone which regulates blood sugar levels. It comes on very quickly over a few weeks, usually in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood, and requires lifelong insulin injections.