Lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation, creates a wide range of signs and symptoms. Systemic lupus erythematosus, the most common form of the condition, can potentially involve any major organ system of the body, says Neil Kramer, MD, co-medical director at the Institute for Rheumatic and Autoimmune Diseases at Overlook Medical Center in Summit, New Jersey. “Therefore, the first signs and symptoms vary from patient to patient.”
The variety of symptoms that lupus can bring on can make it tough to spot. Another reason the disease can be difficult to identify is that some of its most common symptoms — such as fatigue, headaches, joint pain, swelling, and fever — occur in a lot of other illnesses, too. Lupus can imitate rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid problems, and more, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.
So what are the signs it might be lupus and not something else?
One common early symptom that can be indicative of lupus is a photosensitive rash, meaning a rash that develops in response to sun exposure, particularly on the face and upper arms, says Dr. Kramer. Other early symptoms are unexplained fever and pain, swelling, and stiffness of multiple joints. Complications such as inflammation of the lining surrounding the lungs or heart can also occur early on, he adds.
Another early complication may be inflammation of the kidneys, or lupus nephritis. “Sometimes we see patients that don’t have other symptoms at all but do have nephritis,” says Francis Luk, MD, an assistant professor of rheumatology and immunology at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
If you notice these symptoms or a combination of these symptoms and they can’t be explained by another problem or illness you know you have, see your doctor to get them checked out. With early diagnosis and treatment, many of the symptoms of lupus and its complications can be managed, says Stuart D. Kaplan, MD, the chief of rheumatology at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Hewlett, New York.
Here’s more information about the most common early signs of lupus, as well as later ones, to help you better identify and learn about symptoms that might indicate lupus.
Most People With Lupus Will Get Lupus Rash
Many people with lupus will have some form of a rash, says Roberto Caricchio, MD, the interim section chief of rheumatology at Temple University Hospital and director of the Temple Lupus Clinic in Philadelphia. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, as many as two-thirds of people with lupus experience a skin rash, and estimates suggest that between 40 and 70 percent of people with lupus will notice that their symptoms get worse in the sun or some types of artificial light.
One main type of lupus, cutaneous lupus erythematosus, is limited to skin symptoms, including a rash and lesions. That means people with cutaneous lupus, which does not progress and become systemic lupus erythematosus, only experience skin symptoms. People with cutaneous lupus most commonly develop a discoid rash. It appears as round, raised, red patches and can cause scarring, Dr. Caricchio explains. “It’s often confined to small areas above the neck, such as the ears and scalp,” he says. The rash usually does not itch or cause discomfort.