You’ve probably heard that if you have a butterfly-looking rash on your face, you almost certainly have lupus? Well, that could be true, but not all cases of lupus have this distinctive sign. Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that happens when your body’s immune system fails to differentiate foreign invaders from your own healthy tissues and organs. Instead of creating antibodies against the invading bacteria and viruses, it produces autoantibodies that attack healthy tissues. Like other autoimmune diseases, it affects many parts of the body including your blood cells, skin, joints, lungs, brain and heart. Lupus manifests differently and can affect anyone.
Since its signs and symptoms are often the same with other diseases, it can be difficult to know whether you have lupus or not. There is no available cure for lupus yet, but there are treatments to help manage the symptoms.
What is Lupus?
The body has its own internal defense mechanism called the Immune System which fights off various antigens including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and allergens. In the case of Lupus, your body’s defense malfunctions by destroying healthy tissues instead of attacking the infectious agents. This poses damage causing inflammation and other variety of symptoms to the affected areas. When it is limited to skin, it is called Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE). Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) occurs when the viscera are affected.
It is important to remember that Lupus is not contagious; there are no means by which you can catch or give lupus not even through sexual contact.
Early Signs and Symptoms of Lupus
Lupus affects differently to everyone. It exhibits a broad spectrum of signs and symptoms that may be mild or severe and may manifest abruptly or develop slowly. Some symptoms occur temporarily while others may become permanent depending on which systems of your body are affected.
Common early signs and symptoms include:
Most people who have lupus experience certain levels of fatigue. The reason for this is still quite uncertain, but some doctors believe that lupus fatigue may be related to the overactive nerve signals and imbalances associated with fibromyalgia, a disease characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain. This disease affects almost one-third of lupus individuals.
2. Low-Grade Fever
Some people with lupus have an intermittent or continuous low-grade fever from certain infections and inflammations. Those who have lupus are more susceptible to infections due to the immunosuppressive drugs they take.
3. Gastrointestinal Problems and Loss of Appetite
Increased lupus activity can affect the body’s gastrointestinal system which may result in occasional acid reflux or heartburn. A lot of people with lupus also complain of loss in their appetite resulting in weight loss.
4. Muscle Ache and Pain (Myalgia)
90 percent of people who have Lupus will most likely develop joint and/or muscle pain as one of their first symptoms. The most common reason for muscle pain is inflammation and since lupus is an inflammatory disease, it may cause this problem.
Lupus arthritis causes pain, stiffness, tenderness, and swelling in your joints. One distinct characteristic of lupus arthritis is the general stiffness upon awakening.
6. Alopecia (Hair Loss)
Approximately 45 percent of those who have lupus develop hair loss to some degree and occurs early on with the disease. This results from the inflammation of the skin and scalp. “Lupus hair” manifests as hair that feels brittle and breaks easily.
7. Facial Rash (Butterfly Rash)
The most distinctive sign of lupus is a malar rash or butterfly rash that develops on the cheeks and bridge of the nose. This develops in around 40 percent of those who suffer from lupus. The rash can be mild or severe but is usually not painful.
Photosensitivity is an immune system reaction triggered by ultraviolet rays from sunlight and other light sources, such as indoor fluorescent light. Many people with lupus are photosensitive and develop redness and patches in the exposed skin which often go away even without treatment.
9. Chest Pain and Breathlessness
This is due to the inflammation of the pericardium, the sac surrounding the heart, and myocardium which is the heart’s muscle tissue. Breathlessness occurs because the heart functions inefficiently either from the constriction by the pericardium or by the fluid that may collect around the myocardium.
10. Raynaud’s Phenomenon
Raynaud’s phenomenon manifests as the tips of the fingers or toes becoming either red, white, blue or purple and may be accompanied by pain or a tingling feeling. This is caused by the inflammation of the blood vessels of the hands and toes in response to cold thus the poor circulation.
11. Dry Eyes and Dry Mouth
Sjogren’s syndrome affects about 20 percent of lupus individuals. This is a condition in which the tear glands do not produce enough tears to lubricate and nourish the eyes which makes the eyes easily irritated, scratchy and can sometimes cause a burning sensation. Oftentimes, lupus can also cause dry mouth. In some cases, women who have both dry eyes and dry mouth also have dryness of the skin and even vagina.
12. Headaches, Confusion, and Memory Loss
Lupus also affects the nervous system. Symptoms vary depending on the area affected and the degree of tissue injury. Those with mild to moderately active lupus may develop cognitive dysfunction (headaches, confusion, mood swings).
Who Are at Risk for Lupus?
No specific underlying reasons for lupus have been established. It is just that lupus can affect anyone and in different ways. However, there are certain risk factors to help you determine whether you are at more risk to developing lupus or not.
- Sex: Lupus develops more commonly in women than men
- Age: Symptoms usually occur between ages 15 – 44
- Race: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Hispanics are more likely to develop lupus than Caucasians
- Family history: There is a 5 percent chance you’ll get lupus if you have an affected mother and 5 – 13 percent chance of developing if you have relatives with lupus
What Triggers Lupus?
To some with an inherited predisposition to lupus, environmental factors play a great role in the occurrence of symptoms. An infection sets off the body’s immune system thereby prompting any of the various symptoms of lupus. Sunlight exposure can bring about skin lesion and elicit an internal response. Certain medications such as antibiotics, blood pressure medicines, and anti-seizure drugs can lead to drug-induced lupus.
How to Manage Lupus?
There is no available cure for lupus. However, there are a wide variety of ways and treatments to manage and control the symptoms. These treatments vary depending on your signs and symptoms. If you experience any of the said signs of lupus and think that you may have one, consult a doctor and have yourself diagnosed.
The most widely used treatment to control lupus include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Antimalarial drugs
Some of the early signs of lupus are not so much as detrimental to the health and can be easily managed and avoided through proper lifestyle and certain home remedies.
- Eat a healthy and well-balanced diet
- Have a regular exercise
- Avoid direct sunlight exposure
- Do not smoke
- Take doctor recommended supplements
The signs and symptoms of lupus are basically the same with a lot of the other ailments. It is so easy for you to mistake your condition with that of lupus. You may have experienced these signs but still do not have lupus or you may not have any of these signs yet and you walk around not knowing that your health is at stake. To be sure, set an appointment with your doctor and ask for a proper clinical check-up and diagnosis.