min read
October 2, 2023

Early Signs of Lupus: Recognizing the Symptoms

Spotting lupus early: Learn to recognize the subtle symptoms with our essential guide.

Lanby Team
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In recent years, understanding and recognizing the early signs of lupus has become paramount for timely intervention and management of this autoimmune condition. Lupus, a complex disease where the body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, can manifest in various ways, affecting joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, and more. 

In this article, we will delve into the early symptoms that may indicate the presence of lupus, shedding light on what individuals can do to seek appropriate medical attention and support.

What is lupus? 

Lupus, medically known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a chronic autoimmune disease. This means that the body's immune system, which is designed to protect against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses, mistakenly attacks its own tissues and organs. 

Lupus can affect various parts of the body, including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs. This wide-ranging impact on different systems is what makes lupus a complex and often challenging condition to manage.

The exact cause of lupus is not fully understood, but it is believed to involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors. These risk factors can include: 

  • Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays 
  • Sensitivity to sunlight 
  • A family history of lupus 
  • Vitamin D deficiency
  • Preterm birth. 

Importantly, lupus is not a contagious disease, meaning it cannot be spread from person to person like a virus or bacteria. 

Due to its diverse symptoms and potential to affect multiple organs, lupus can manifest differently in each individual. This variability in presentation can sometimes make diagnosis and treatment more complex. Understanding the early signs and symptoms of lupus is crucial for timely intervention and effective management.

What is pre-lupus?

Pre-lupus, also known as pre-systemic lupus erythematosus (pre-SLE), refers to a stage where individuals exhibit some signs and symptoms similar to lupus but do not meet the full criteria for a lupus diagnosis. This is considered a stage of early autoimmunity. 

At this point, individuals may have specific antibodies or markers associated with lupus, but they may not yet show the full spectrum of symptoms required for a formal lupus diagnosis. It's important to monitor individuals in this stage, as some may go on to develop full-blown lupus over time.

Different types of lupus

  • Cutaneous lupus: This type of lupus affects the skin primarily. It can manifest as a distinctive butterfly-shaped rash on the face (malar rash) or red-purple rashes on the head, face, and ears. In some cases, cutaneous lupus can extend beyond the skin.
  • Neonatal lupus: This rare form occurs in newborns when maternal antibodies inadvertently attack the baby. Symptoms may include anemia (reduced number of red blood cells), liver problems, and more. Typically, neonatal lupus resolves within the first six months.
  • Systemic lupus (SLE): This is the most common form, affecting about 70% of individuals with lupus. SLE can cause inflammation in multiple organs and systems, often leading to overlapping symptoms with other conditions. It's important to note that SLE is the form most commonly referred to when discussing lupus.

Drug-induced lupus: This condition is caused by specific prescription drugs. It is more common in men, as they are given these drugs (such as hydralazine, isoniazid, and procainamide) more frequently. Drug-induced lupus can sometimes mimic the symptoms of lupus but typically resolves once the medication is discontinued.

The early onset of lupus and identifying the early signs

What is the early onset of lupus?

The early onset of lupus refers to the initial stages of the disease. This can encompass the period when individuals start experiencing the first signs and common symptoms that may indicate the presence of lupus. Early onset can occur at any age, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 45.

Identifying the early signs

Recognizing early signs of lupus is crucial for timely intervention and effective management. It's important to remember that experiencing these symptoms does not necessarily mean you have lupus, but they warrant medical attention. Some early signs include:

  • Fatigue: Up to 90% of individuals with lupus experience some level of fatigue. This can range from mild to severe and may significantly impact daily activities.
  • Unexplained fever: A persistent low-grade fever without an apparent cause may indicate underlying inflammation or a potential lupus flare-up. It's important to consult a healthcare provider if you experience unexplained fever.
  • Hair loss: Inflammation of the skin and scalp can lead to significant hair loss, often occurring in clumps. This symptom can be distressing and may warrant further evaluation.
  • Skin rash: The hallmark butterfly-shaped ras over the bridge of the nose and cheeks, as well as skin lesions, are a common indicator of lupus. While these symptoms are distinctive, not all individuals with lupus will develop them.
  • Pulmonary issues: Lupus can lead to inflammation in the pulmonary system, affecting the lungs and blood vessels. This can result in symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain.
  • Kidney problems: Inflammation in the kidneys can disrupt their ability to effectively filter waste from the blood. This can lead to symptoms such as swelling in the legs or high blood pressure.
  • Joint pain:  Joint inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, and noticeable swelling. This symptom is similar to arthritis and may be one of the early signs of lupus.
  • Gastrointestinal problems: Some individuals with lupus experience occasional heartburn, acid reflux, or other gastrointestinal issues. These symptoms may be indicative of inflammation in the digestive tract.
  • Thyroid problems: It’s not uncommon for people with lupus to develop autoimmune thyroid disease. This can lead to symptoms like fatigue, weight changes, and mood disturbances.
  • Dry mouth and dry eyes: Some people with lupus develop Sjögren’s syndrome, another autoimmune disorder that shows in symptoms such as dry mouth and eyes.
  • Other symptoms: Lupus can also present with a range of other symptoms, including oral ulcers, osteoporosis, depression, and more. It's important to be aware of any unusual or persistent symptoms and discuss them with a healthcare provider.

It's important to note that Lupus can affect individuals of any gender, but it is more prevalent in women, particularly those of childbearing age.

Remember, early detection and appropriate medical evaluation are crucial for accurate diagnosis and timely intervention. If you suspect you may be experiencing early signs of lupus, seek guidance from a healthcare professional for proper assessment and management.

Treating lupus

Lupus is a complex condition that manifests differently in each individual. Therefore, treatment must be tailored to the specific needs and tolerances of the patient. While there is no definitive cure for lupus at present, it can be effectively managed with a comprehensive treatment plan designed in collaboration with a healthcare provider.

Key goals of lupus treatment

Symptom control

Managing symptoms is critical to treat lupus. This may involve addressing pain, inflammation, fatigue, and other manifestations that impact daily life.

Immune system regulation

It is essential to modulate the immune system to prevent it from attacking the body's own tissues. This helps to reduce inflammation and potential organ damage.

Organ protection

Lupus can potentially lead to organ damage, especially if left unmanaged. Therefore, protecting vital organs from harm is a key priority in treatment.

Medications for lupus

  • Anticoagulants: Often referred to as blood thinners, anticoagulants are medications that work to prevent blood clots from forming or growing larger. They do this by interfering with the body's natural blood clotting process. This medicine may be a treatment option as blood clots can be a complication of lupus, particularly in individuals with antiphospholipid antibodies.
  • Anti-inflammatories: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids are often used to reduce inflammation and alleviate pain associated with lupus.
  • Antimalarials: Originally designed to treat malaria, antimalarials like hydroxychloroquine have proven effective in managing lupus symptoms, particularly skin and joint issues.
  • Biologics: Biologic drugs target specific pathways in the immune system, providing a more targeted approach to managing lupus.
  • Immunosuppression: These medications work by suppressing the immune system to prevent it from attacking the body's tissues. They are often used in more severe cases of lupus.
  • Steroids: Steroids are powerful anti-inflammatory drugs that can be effective in managing a range of lupus symptoms. However, their long-term use may be associated with certain side effects.

Lifestyle considerations

While medication plays a crucial role in managing lupus, leading a healthy lifestyle is equally important. This includes maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular exercise, managing stress, and avoiding exposure to potential triggers, such as excessive sun exposure.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating lupus, a combination of medication, lifestyle adjustments, and regular medical monitoring can significantly improve the quality of life for individuals living with this condition. Close collaboration with a healthcare provider is essential to develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses individual needs and concerns.

The bottom line 

In conclusion, understanding and recognizing the early signs of lupus is a crucial step towards effectively managing this intricate autoimmune condition. Lupus, a disease that impacts various body systems, demands a personalized approach to treatment. 

By addressing symptoms, regulating the immune system, and safeguarding organs, individuals can significantly improve their quality of life. It's important to note that while there is no definitive cure, a comprehensive treatment plan, in conjunction with a healthy lifestyle, can make a substantial difference. 

Early detection and continuous collaboration with healthcare providers are pivotal in this journey. At The Lanby we care about you. Try a different primary care experience and learn about our membership, or book a free consult.  

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The Lanby Editorial Team