HomeHealth TopicAutoimmune Disorder

Can COVID-19 Infection Cause Autoimmune Diseases?

Christina Palmer, MD
Published on May 7, 2021

Key takeaways:

  • COVID-19 can cause long-term health effects and autoimmune disease.

  • Several autoimmune disorders have been linked to COVID-19 infection.

  • Autoimmune disease can happen with mild COVID-19, but the risk is higher in severe cases.

Nurse talking with patient at home going over information on a tablet.
FG Trade/E+ via Getty Images

The world has been consumed by the COVID-19 pandemic — and, unfortunately, it is far from over. Even after we reach herd immunity with vaccination, we will no doubt still have questions about the long-term effects of COVID-19. 

Some of these ongoing questions will probably have to do with COVID-19 and autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease — like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis — is a type of health condition where your immune system attacks your own body. And over the past year, a pattern has emerged: In some people, COVID-19 can cause autoimmune problems.

With all this in mind, you may be wondering: What do I need to know about the autoimmune effects of COVID-19? Read on to learn more about what we know so far about COVID-19 and autoimmune disorders.

Can COVID-19 cause long-term health problems?

Yes. COVID-19 infections can cause long-term health problems, even after recovery. This is sometimes called “long COVID.” Long COVID affects 10% of patients hospitalized with COVID. We don’t yet know how often it occurs in people with mild or asymptomatic cases. 

Long COVID can include the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue

  • Shortness of breath

  • Headaches

  • Joint pain

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Gastrointestinal problems

  • Anxiety and depression

Long COVID is currently being researched. We still don’t know how long these symptoms may last, or how to treat them. But it’s possible that — at least in part — long COVID could be a type of autoimmune process. This is especially likely because we already know that other viruses can trigger autoimmune disease. 

Can COVID-19 cause autoimmune diseases?

Yes. In research studies, there is a connection between COVID-19 and autoimmune conditions. We don’t know for sure why this happens. It’s possible that a COVID-19 infection confuses your immune system, and causes it to attack your own body.

In some cases, people with COVID-19 have autoimmune symptoms soon after getting infected. For example, people with COVID-19 can lose their sense of smell. Loss of smell is common in autoimmune diseases, like lupus and multiple sclerosis (MS).

About 50% of people with COVID-19 also have autoantibodies in their blood. Autoantibodies are immune system proteins that mistakenly attack your own body. They are part of many autoimmune disorders. 

Though we know there’s a connection between COVID-19 and autoimmune disease, at this point the numbers are small. More research will help us understand how COVID-19 is connected to autoimmune disease. 

Which autoimmune conditions have been linked to COVID-19 infection?

So far, COVID-19 infections are linked to these different autoimmune conditions:

This list may grow as doctors and scientists learn more about COVID-19. 

How do viral and bacterial infections cause autoimmune diseases?

In people with a genetic predisposition, an infection can sometimes (but not always) trigger an autoimmune condition — like type 1 diabetes, lupus, MS, or rheumatoid arthritis

Infections linked to AID include:

This may happen because of something called “molecular mimicry.” Molecular mimicry is when a virus or bacteria looks similar to our own cells. This can make it hard for your immune system to tell the difference between a foreign invader and your own body — triggering autoimmune disease. 

Who is most likely to get an autoimmune disease from COVID-19?

It’s not clear. While we don’t fully understand who will have autoimmune problems with COVID-19, we do know some of the risk factors for long COVID. And remember: There’s some evidence that long COVID could actually be an autoimmune condition. 

Risk factors for long COVID include:

And some of these risk factors — like being female or having obesity — are also risk factors for autoimmune disorders. This is true even in people who never have COVID-19. 

Genetics also plays a role in determining if someone with COVID-19 will have autoimmune problems. Many other autoimmune conditions are caused when a person with a genetic predisposition encounters an environmental trigger (like an infection). And some COVID-19 autoimmune disorders seem to be more common in certain genetic groups, like children of sub-Saharan or Caribbean descent

How are autoimmune disorders diagnosed after a COVID-19 infection?

Some autoimmune conditions are diagnosed while you are sick with COVID-19. For example, people hospitalized with COVID-19 can have autoimmune disorders. These disorders can cause: 

  • Bleeding

  • Uncontrolled high blood sugar

  • Blood clots

  • Muscle weakness 

New autoimmune diseases could also be diagnosed after recovery from COVID-19 — though we don’t know much about this yet.

What if I only have a mild or asymptomatic case of COVID-19?

We don’t have much data on autoimmune disease in mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. So far, severe cases seem more likely to cause autoimmune problems. However, we do know that even mild cases can still lead to long COVID symptoms. 

What if I already have an autoimmune disease?

Early in the pandemic, experts suspected that people with autoimmune diseases might be more at risk for severe COVID-19. But in reality, this doesn’t seem to be true. 

In fact, people who already have an autoimmune disorder don’t seem to have a higher risk for severe COVID-19. And after recovery, they aren’t any more likely to get long COVID, or to develop another (second) autoimmune condition.

The bottom line

COVID-19 can cause long-term health effects and autoimmune problems. More research is still needed on the connection between COVID-19 and the immune system. In the meantime, your best protection is to get vaccinated, wear a mask, wash your hands often, and continue to avoid indoor crowded areas.

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