There is a condition that affects an estimated 1.5 million people in the U.S., yet 66% of people in the U.S. haven’t even heard of it. This condition is chronic and can be debilitating during a flare-up. What is this mysterious condition? It’s lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that is little known and largely misunderstood. Since lupus is substantially more prevalent in women, it’s important to know the more common lupus symptoms in women.
What is lupus?
Lupus is a chronic disease of the autoimmune system. Normally the immune system fights off germs and bacteria and then resettles into a “maintenance” mode, but for those with lupus, the immune system remains on high alert, attacking healthy tissues at will. The body loses its ability to distinguish between healthy, normal functioning and signs of potential illness, so it attacks every part of the body as a foreign invader.
Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to develop lupus, with the risk for women of color two to three times higher than that of other races. For best treatment options, it’s important to recognize lupus symptoms in women early.
Other important things to understand about lupus include:
- It’s not contagious and cannot be transmitted through any form of physical contact.
- Lupus is not the same thing as HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). In lupus, the immune system is working overtime. In HIV, the immune system is struggling to function at all.
- Lupus can be successfully treated, and, although a chronic disease, it need not be fatal.
The most common lupus symptoms in women
Ten of the most common lupus symptoms in women include:
- Severe and unexplained fatigue
- Hair loss
- Unexplained, low-grade fever
- Chest pain when breathing (pleurisy)
- A butterfly-shaped skin rash that spreads over the nose and cheeks
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Painful, swollen, and achy joints
- Signs of kidney nephritis, or changes in urine
- Thyroid issues, leading to weight gain or loss
- Skin and vaginal dryness
Do note that symptoms of lupus vary depending on how the condition manifests itself in the patient’s body. Also, symptoms may come and go. Lupus is a condition characterized by flare-ups when symptoms are severe and remission when all symptoms may disappear.
Let’s look at these in more detail.
Beyond normal tiredness, fatigue occurs even after long periods of rest or sleep and is unrelieved. While this is one of the most common lupus symptoms in women, fatigue alone does not necessarily mean that lupus is the diagnosis.
2. Hair loss
While thinning hair is normal to a degree mostly dependent on genetics, another early lupus symptom in women is an accelerated pace of thinning hair. It is normal to lose around 100 strands of hair every day, but hair loss in women may also include losing eyebrows and eyelashes. You can learn more about lupus hair loss here.
3. Unexplained, low-grade fever
One of the hallmarks of infection is fever, and an early warning sign is recurring low-grade fever for no reason.
This can be as low as 100 degrees, just .4 degrees higher than normal body temperature, so many women don’t even realize it is occurring.
4. Respiratory issues
Inflammation in the delicate tissues of the lungs can lead to difficulty breathing. When blood vessels in the lungs begin to swell, pleuritic chest pain – chest pain upon inhalation – can occur. Over time, lungs can actually shrink as lupus gets more severe.
5. Lupus rash
Approximately 50% of lupus sufferers develop a rash as an early symptom. These rashes may not be itchy and tend to appear directly before a flare-up (or in response to sunshine). Fingers and toes may also appear discolored.
One of the most common lupus symptoms in women is a butterfly-shaped rash across the face. You can learn more about that here.
6. Gastrointestinal issues
One of the symptoms of lupus in women that is easy to misdiagnose is gastrointestinal issues. This could include:
- Mild heartburn
- Upset stomach
- Other issues with digestion and elimination
7. Painful, swollen, and achy joints
Inflammation in the joints that is left untreated can lead to permanent damage. Pain can come and go, so many women will discount this as a normal sign of aging or activity.
If joints continue to be stiff and swollen after taking an over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, a visit to the doctor is in order.
8. Signs of kidney nephritis, or changes in urine
Nephritis is a condition of the kidney when it becomes inflamed and is no longer able to process toxins in the body. Legs and feet may swell, and urine may turn darker in color. You may also experience pain in the kidney area or see blood in the urine.
Untreated, kidney nephritis can lead to end-stage renal failure.
9. Thyroid issues
The thyroid controls the body’s metabolism, and when affected by lupus it can wreak havoc.
An underactive thyroid is called hypothyroidism and an overactive one is referred to as hyperthyroidism. Both can cause extremes of weight gain and loss and an inability to properly utilize nutrients, resulting in moodiness, dry skin, and, in extreme cases, malnutrition.
Lupus causes malfunction in the salivary glands, tear ducts, and mucosa of the vagina. What begins as simple discomfort can progress to more serious diseases such as Sjogren’s syndrome, which causes the tear ducts and salivary glands to shut down.
Other lupus symptoms in women
It is important to note that many of these symptoms are present in other conditions, and that not all lupus sufferers will experience every symptom all at once. There’s a wide range of symptoms associated with lupus. Some of the other symptoms that women report include:
- Anemia (low red blood cell count)
- Dizziness and fainting
- Unexplained mood issues, including depression
- Sensitivity to light (photosensitivity)
- Skin lesions
- Shortness of breath
- Cognitive difficulties, including confusion and memory loss
- Ulcers, especially in the mouth
- Swelling in the legs and around the eyes
- White or purple extremities (fingers and toes)
What causes lupus?
Lupus causes are not well-understood. For some women, there may be a genetic link in that they have a predisposition to an overactive immune system, perhaps inherited from a family member. Lupus occurs primarily in women between the ages of 15 and 44. African American women are two to three times more likely to develop lupus, and Hispanic women are also at increased risk.
Lupus triggers may include:
- Exposure to sunlight: Specifically for those with a genetic susceptibility, sunlight may be a trigger for a lupus diagnosis
- Infection: There are certain types of infections that can cause the autoimmune system to kick into overdrive
- Medications: As explained below, some medications may cause a particular type of drug-induced lupus
Types of lupus
Although all types of lupus share some similarities as far as initial symptoms go, there are different types of lupus, each with their own set of complications and symptoms. These include the following.
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): SLE is exactly what it sounds like. This is the most common type of lupus and is what people are referring to when they think or talk about lupus. This type of lupus affects every system of the body, causing inflammation and symptoms indiscriminately.
- Discoid lupus erythematosus: Discoid lupus erythematosus is characterized by a red, raised rash that can appear anywhere on the body but most commonly occurs on the face or scalp. Over time, this rash may become thick, produce scaly skin, and scar. As with other types of lupus, symptoms of discoid lupus erythematosus can come and go, lasting for days or years. Some people with this type of lupus may also have or develop SLE later.
- Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus: This type of lupus also features lesions, but only those that appear in the sun. They do not generally cause scarring.
- Drug-induced lupus: Some anti-seizure medications, high blood pressure medications, antibiotics and antifungals, thyroid medications, and oral contraceptive pills can cause lupus. Drug-induced lupus has similar symptoms to SLE, but the symptoms generally resolve once the drug is stopped.
- Neonatal lupus: This is the rarest form of lupus. Women with SLE or Sjögren’s syndrome may pass along autoantibodies in their blood called anti-Ro (SSA) and anti-La (SSB). These autoantibodies attack the new tissues of the mother’s body as well as the fetus. When these babies are born, they may have a skin rash, liver problems, and low blood counts. In some cases, infants may develop a congenital heart block that can be life-threatening. Mothers with SLE can experience flare-ups caused by pregnancy, which can increase the chances of neonatal lupus.
How to diagnose lupus
Because lupus presents with similar symptoms of other disorders, getting a lupus diagnosis can be very difficult. Doctors will take a thorough medical history and perform a complete medical exam.
There is no one test that yields a positive lupus diagnosis, but the following tests can use process of elimination and help gather more information that might lead to a diagnosis:
- Complete blood count (CBC): A CBC measures white blood cells, red blood cells, platelets, and hemoglobin. Changes in these numbers can indicate the potential for lupus.
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate: The sedimentation rate measures the speed at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube. Many inflammatory conditions, including lupus, have a faster rate of sedimentation.
- Kidney and liver assessment: The longer a person has lupus, the higher the likelihood that major organs such as kidneys and liver will be damaged. These blood tests look for poor function in these organs that may lead to a lupus diagnosis.
- Urinalysis: Increased protein level or red blood cells in the urine may occur if lupus has affected your kidneys.
- Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test: Stimulated immune systems produce ANAs. This test can be misleading, though. The majority of people with lupus have these antibodies, but not everyone with these antibodies has lupus. Generally, the presence of ANAs indicates a need for further testing.
Doctors may recommend consulting with specialists like rheumatologists and immunologists if they suspect a lupus diagnosis. Lupus symptoms in women don’t necessarily indicate the presence of this disease, but looking into any of these unexplained symptoms is a great way to set your mind at ease.
Further, if you do have lupus, support groups can be invaluable. Find our suggestions for the best online and local lupus support groups here.
You can find a pain specialist in your area who can help by clicking the button below or looking for one in your area by using the tips here: https://paindoctor.com/pain-management-doctors/.