Autoimmune Vs. Low Immunity – What’s The Difference? by Dr. Sagar Bhattad

10 min read

Written by Dr. Sagar Bhattad

Dr. Sagar Bhattad

Dr Sagar Bhattad is a renowned Pediatric Immunologist and Rheumatologist in Bengaluru. He is the first DM in India in Pediatric Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology specialty.

He received hi More

auto immune disease in children

A kid falling sick is nothing new. In fact, it is unavoidable. Children keep falling ill ever so often and no matter what parents do, nothing seems to work. You may load up on fruits and vegetables, even give them those supplements that promise to increase immunity; but they will bring back some bugs from school in addition to the homework! Is your child facing low immunity or having autoimmune issues? Autoimmune Vs Low immunity- what is the difference?

Does your child fall sick more often than the average kid? Do they seem to take a lot of time to recover? Could something be wrong with their immune system? Do they have some autoimmune disease? It is natural for a parent to worry. Let’s delve further and understand if it is an autoimmune disease or very low immunity.

In This Article

Autoimmune Diseases – Basics

Autoimmune disease is a condition wherein the immune system attacks the body instead of the foreign invaders. When the immune system detects a foreign invader, it produces cells to fight it. Autoimmune disease is where these cells attack the body itself instead of the infections.

The immune system mistakes the body’s own cells for foreign cells and attacks them. The exact reason behind such a malfunction of the immune system is still not clear. Numerous researches are being carried out to understand this phenomenon.

While some diseases can be attributed to genetics, some are still a mystery. Some of these diseases are more prevalent among certain ethnic groups, while some are due to constant exposure to unsafe elements in the environment.

What are Autoimmune Diseases?

What Are Autoimmune Diseases_

As seen above, autoimmune diseases are where the body is attacked instead of being protected. Some autoimmune diseases target just one organ, while others affect the entire body or certain parts of the body.

There are more than 100 varieties of autoimmune diseases. While some are manageable with regular checkups and medications, a few others can be fatal. Most of the diseases have no permanent cure. It might even be difficult and take years before a proper diagnosis.

Some of the common autoimmune diseases are:

  • Type 1 Diabetes: This type of diabetes affects the pancreas and can affect babies too.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: This is a very common autoimmune disease that mainly affects joints.
  • Psoriasis: This is a skin condition that causes scaly patches and thickening of the skin.
  • Graves Disease: This affects the thyroid gland and can cause severe weight loss or an increase in heart rate.
  • Lupus: This is a disease that affects multiple areas in the body, including the joints, skin as well as inner organs.

How Does the Immune System Work?

The immune system is a complex network of tissues, cells, organs, and proteins that work together to fight foreign invaders in the body. When it senses the presence of any infection, it produces antibodies to fight the infection and protect your child.

The human immune system can be of two types:

1. Innate Immune System

This is the immunity the child inherits from the parents and genes. It is active from the moment the child is born and leaves the shelter of the mother’s immune system in the womb. The immune system will surround the foreign invader and kill it, to protect the child.

The innate immune system is the rapid response that keeps patrolling the body and reacts immediately when it identifies an invader. A simple example would be dust. The dust is the foreign invader and a sneeze or a cough is the rapid response that effectively fights and removes the invader from the body.

2, Acquired Immune System

The acquired immune system produces antibodies to fight infection. The B lymphocytes produce these antibodies in response to an infection. Once produced, the immune system will remember this invader. The next time the same invader or infection affects your child, the immune system will retrieve from memory and defend the body.

As expected, the acquired immune system keeps changing as it develops. The memory keeps increasing as the immune system fights various infections and illnesses. The multiple immunizations your child receives from birth are also a part of this immune system. The vaccines tell the immune system how to fight specific infections.

[Read : Guide To Compulsory and Optional Vaccines For Babies]

What Happens When a Child Has Autoimmune Disease?

What Happens When A Child Has Autoimmune Disease_

When a child has an autoimmune disease, their immune system starts attacking their own body and cannot be stopped. The disease can attack any part of the body, but in many cases, it is the connective tissue.

This can affect the child in many ways.

  • The disease can affect their growth (height and weight).
  • It can weaken their immune system and make them susceptible to more infections (cold, fever, etc.).
  • The autoimmune disease can change the way they eat or their food preferences. Also, the diet must change to support the body.
  • It can make them experience fatigue and impact their physical activities (the child may not play outdoors like other children).

Types of Autoimmune Diseases That Affect Children

Autoimmune diseases can trigger at any age. They can broadly be classified into:

1. Organ-Specific Disorders

These affect a particular organ or a specific tissue:

  • Type 1 Diabetes
  • Addison’s Disease
  • Ulcerative Colitis
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Autoimmune Hepatitis

2. Non-Organ Specific Disorders

These can affect the whole body:

[Read : Diabetes In Children]

Autoimmune Disease Risk Category

While the exact causes behind autoimmune diseases are still unknown, scientists and doctors have theories. These theories point to certain risk factors. The following people have a higher risk of suffering from autoimmune diseases:

1. Genetically Inclined


Autoimmune disease can be in the genes. Different members of the family can be affected in different ways. This means that two people in the same family can have two different autoimmune diseases. It is just a trigger and we cannot predict when and where that trigger will be and what part of the body it will affect.

If a child has a blood relative with an autoimmune disease (parents, siblings, grandparents), the child is at risk. This does not mean a child born to a mother with an autoimmune disease will definitely have some disease. It is just a high-risk category.

2, Environment

Some autoimmune diseases can occur due to exposure to certain environmental factors. If a child or a family lives in such an exposed condition, the risk is higher.

3. Gender

Women seem to be more susceptible to autoimmune disease than men. This applies to many autoimmune diseases that affect children. There are exceptions to this, for eg: ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune disease that damages the spine is more common in men.

4. Hormonal

Major hormonal changes in the body could be the trigger for an underlying autoimmune condition. So, a woman of childbearing age, experiencing menopause or during/after pregnancy is at a higher risk than other women.

5. Infections

Sometimes an infection can trigger and set off the autoimmune disease. If an autoimmune disease is already present, it can get worse with an infection.

Can Autoimmune Diseases be Prevented?

Can Autoimmune Diseases Be Prevented_

Since there is no permanent cure for most autoimmune diseases and the causes for them are also not clear, can we prevent it? Is there something a parent can do proactively, to protect their child?

Unfortunately, there are no guaranteed ways to prevent these diseases. The simple reason is it is not possible to confirm if a person can have an autoimmune disease before they show any symptoms. Once these symptoms start presenting themselves, the disease is active and cannot be “prevented”. It can in some cases be controlled and the severity can be reduced with medications, treatment, and lifestyle changes.

For example, if a person has type 1 diabetes, there is no guarantee their child will also have diabetes or any other autoimmune disease. So, treating this child for diabetes or any other possible disease, before you see any telltale signs, is not advisable.

However, if the child does get diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at a very early stage itself, certain changes can be made. The child’s diet can be taken care of, to include more nutritious food and reduce the food that can cause the sugar levels to spike. They can be taught and trained to lead an active lifestyle so that they exercise well and do not slip into a sedentary lifestyle.

Regular checkups and glucose tests can be taken at home to monitor the sugar levels, to ensure the child does not go into hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia. There are some suggestions among the medical community to give aggressive medications to high-risk category people to prevent the onset of any autoimmune disease.

However, this did not materialize as no doctor can actually predict what type of disease will be triggered, if at all. Treating something that does not exist is not a feasible option. ( You cannot give a child chemotherapy before they show any signs of cancer, just because their parents have cancer).

Care For Autoimmune Disease

Care For Autoimmune Disease

It is very unfortunate that a person or a child is affected by an autoimmune disease. If it is a small child or a baby, the diagnosis can be even more difficult to digest and accept. However, we should understand this is no fault of the child or the parent. The child requires a lot of support, compassion, and patience to get through the initial phase until they can adjust to the “new way of life”.

Here are some tips to care for a child diagnosed with an autoimmune disease:

  • Be patient with them. They are too young to understand the enormity of the situation.
  • Do not lose your cool if they refuse to cooperate with medications or diet changes. They are still children and they always test boundaries (disease or no disease).
  • Talk to them regularly and reassure them about their capabilities to achieve things in life and to lead a normal life. They need the mental and emotional strength to go through with this.
  • If they throw tantrums or have meltdowns because they cannot do something another child is doing, be calm and handle them with care. It is necessary to enforce boundaries, but do not be too harsh on them. They need compassion along with the “rules”.
  • Take them for regular checkups as suggested by the doctor. Do not skip any check-ups or tests.
  • Follow the doctor’s orders and prescriptions. Do not modify to suit your situation without consulting the doctor first.
  • If you see any symptoms flaring up, or if the child does not seem to be their usual self, consult your doctor immediately.

Low Immunity in Kids – Should You Worry?

low immunity in kids

Detecting an autoimmune disease can be very tricky. In very young children, the symptoms could be confused with regular infections or low immunity. It might take multiple visits to the doctor and multiple “second opinions” before a diagnosis is made.

So, how can you know if your child has a dreaded autoimmune disease or very low immunity? Is low immunity a cause for worry?

Yes, it definitely is. Though the prognosis is not as grave as an autoimmune disease, it is still concerning for any parent. To know their child has less than an average immunity and can fall sick more often than an average child is not something any parent can take lightly. Children with very low immunity usually suffer from a group of diseases called “Primary Immune Deficiencies“.

The risk of infections is higher in these children. It is important to boost their immune system by incorporating some changes in their diet and lifestyle and through medications.

How to Gauge Your Child’s Immune System is Healthy?

The question is how can you know? How can you find out if your child’s immune system is healthy or not? Here are some indicators to watch out for:

1. Frequent Infections

It is normal for a child to catch a cold or cough once in a while. The frequency is more in young children who just started school. This is because they are just getting exposed to new pathogens in the atmosphere and their immune system is learning to live with it or fight it.

However, when the infections are very frequent, it could be a warning sign. Repeated chest infections (pneumonia), respiratory issues, loose motions, need for hospitalizations, etc., can mean your child has weak immunity.

2. Failure to Gain Weight

Failure To Gain Weight

Each child has a different rate of weight gain. The weight gain chart is usually formulated by taking age, ethnicity, gender, etc., into consideration. Birth weight also plays a big role in a child’s weight gain. So, do not blindly compare the weight of your child with another the same age and conclude your child has some health issue.

Observe your child’s growth and weight gain journey. Keep an eye on the scale and record the numbers. Doctors always check the weight of the child when they go in for a check-up. If your child has always been underweight but has not shown any symptoms of low immunity or other health issues, then there is nothing to be alarmed about.

On the other hand, if your child had a healthy birth weight but does not have the average weight gain, or is underweight and falls sick more often, then it could indicate a low immunity.

[Read : 10 Most Important Nutrients Needed For Strong Immune System in Kids]

3. Nutritional Deficiencies

A deficiency can show up in multiple ways. There are many symptoms to watch out for. If you notice your child is showing symptoms of any possible deficiency seek medical attention immediately. You can express your concern to your doctor and they can prescribe some tests to find out.

Each nutrient has a role to play in the body. A deficiency will affect a specific body part or the entire body. Hair fall, brittle nails, unhealthy skin, low attention span, fatigue, easy bruising, delayed clotting or healing, could all be indicators of a nutritional deficiency. This in turn could mean a weak immunity.

Low Immunity and Autoimmune Disease – Are They the Same?

sick child

Low immunity is when your body is weak and not strong enough to fight infections effectively. It will take more time or require more external support to fight. Some children have very low immunity because they have a genetic defect in their immune system (Primary Immune Deficiency).

Autoimmune disease is when the immune system starts attacking the body instead of protecting it. A result of autoimmune disease is low immunity. Antibodies hurt the body’s own healthy cells. This weakens the immune system.

So, both are different but one can cause the other. In both cases, the child has to be taken care of with extra support. This could be immunity-boosting foods, adapting to a different lifestyle, or medications.

The immune system is very important for a quality life. If your child has issues with their immune system, you need to find ways to work with them to help improve their quality of life. Remember, though it can be very difficult, and challenging to have a child with immunity issues, it is the child going through the entire debacle. They need your love, support, patience, and understanding to cope.

Read Also: What Is Intravenous Immunoglobulin? How Does It Work in Children With Low Immunity?

Dr. Sagar Bhattad, MBBS, MD Pediatrics
DM - Pediatric Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, Aster CMI Hospital
7 years of experience

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