Lupus is a lifelong disorder of the immune system. Immune cells attack the body’s own healthy tissues, leading to inflammation and tissue damage. Symptoms may be limited to the skin, but more often lupus also causes internal problems such as joint pain. In severe cases, it can damage the heart, kidneys, and other vital organs. Although there’s no cure, there are treatments that can minimize the damage.
Lupus Symptom: Joint Pain
Joint and muscle pain is often the first sign of lupus. This pain tends to occur on both sides of the body at the same time, particularly in the joints of the wrists, hands, elbows, knees, or ankles. The joints may look inflamed and feel warm to the touch. But unlike rheumatoid arthritis, lupus usually does not cause permanent joint damage.
Lupus Symptom: Butterfly Rash
A tell-tale sign of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and bridge of the nose. Other common skin problems include sensitivity to the sun with flaky, red spots or a scaly, purple rash on various parts of the body, including the face, neck, and arms. Some people also develop mouth or lip sores.
Lupus Symptom: Nail Changes
Lupus can cause the nails to crack or fall off. They may be discolored with blue or reddish spots at the base. These spots are actually in the nail bed, the result of inflamed small blood vessels. Swelling may also make the skin around the base of the nail look red and puffy.
Lupus Symptoms: Fever and Fatigue
Most people with lupus experience some degree of fatigue. In many cases, it is severe enough to interfere with exercise and other daily activities. Most patients also run a low-grade fever from time to time. This unexplained fever may be the only warning sign in some people.
Lupus Symptom: Light Sensitivity
Many people with lupus are unusually sensitive to the sun and other forms of ultraviolet light (such as tanning beds.) A day at the beach may trigger a skin rash in areas exposed to sunlight and may worsen other lupus symptoms. Certain medications can make people with lupus even more sensitive to UV light.
Lupus Symptom: Hair Loss
The symptoms of lupus tend to come and go, and this includes hair loss. Patients may go through periods where their hair falls out in patches or becomes thinner all across the scalp. Once the flare-up is over, new hair is likely to grow in evenly.
Lupus Symptom: Raynaud’s
Some people with lupus develop a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon. Their fingers and toes become painful, numb, and tingly in response to cold temperatures or emotional stress. This happens when small blood vessels spasm and restrict blood flow to the area. During an attack, the fingers and toes may turn white or blue. People can also have Raynaud’s without having lupus or any serious health complications.
Lupus or Something Else?
When lupus begins, it can look a lot like rheumatoid arthritis, which causes joint pain and swelling, or fibromyalgia, which causes fatigue and pain. One aspect that sets lupus apart is the combination of skin rashes with joint pain and fatigue. There are also lab tests that can help distinguish lupus from other diseases.
Diagnosing lupus can be tricky. The disease can mimic other conditions, and it often takes a different course in different people. Many people have it for years before developing tell-tale symptoms. Although there is no one test for lupus, certain proteins usually show up in a patient’s blood. A blood test for antinuclear antibodies (ANAs) can provide a critical clue. Other lab tests may check cell counts, kidney function, and clotting time. A tissue biopsy sometimes helps with diagnosis.
Who Gets Lupus?
Anyone can get lupus. But more than 90% of people with lupus are women. Aside from being female, your odds of getting the disease are higher if you are:
- African-American, Latino, or Asian
- Aged 15 to 45
Types of Lupus
When people say “lupus,” they usually mean systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common and serious type. But there are other types. Cutaneous lupus erythematosus also called discoid lupus is limited to the skin and doesn’t cause the organ damage that sometimes occurs with SLE. The most common symptom is a circular rash. Drug-induced systemic lupus causes temporary lupus symptoms in people who take certain medications.
Medical Treatments for Lupus
There are ways to control the symptoms of lupus. These include corticosteroid creams for rashes and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for joint pain and fever. Antimalarial medications can help fight joint pain, ulcers, and rashes. Higher dose of corticosteroids may be given as pills or injections. People with severe lupus may benefit from drugs that suppress the immune system.
Self-Care for Lupus
Making some changes to your routine can also help reduce lupus flare-ups:
- Cover up when you’re in the sun.
- Don’t smoke.
- Exercise regularly.
- Improve your stress management skills.