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.
18 lupus symptoms in women
Early lupus symptoms in women include:
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.
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. Rash or lesions
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.
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, or other issues with digestion and elimination.
7. Painful, swollen 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
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 symptoms of lupus in women can include:
- Muscle pain
- Chest pain
Rarely, lupus symptoms in women can include anemia, dizziness, syncope, and seizures.
Lupus appears to be caused by a genetic predisposition that kicks in when triggered by sunlight, medications, or another infection.
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. Other important things to understand about lupus include:
- It’s not contagious and cannot be transmitted through any form of physical contact.
- Approximately 1.5 million people in the U.S. are living with lupus.
- 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.
Diagnosis of lupus can be complicated because so many of the symptoms are also present in other disorders. In general, doctors will look for signs of infection or immune system activity in the body, including:
- Low white blood count, indicating lupus, or any signs of anemia
- Erythrocyte sedimentation rate: This is the rate at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube (faster rates of sedimentation are a hallmark of lupus)
- Compromised kidney and liver function
- Urinalysis that shows increased protein levels or red blood cells in the urine
- A positive antinuclear antibody (ANA) test that indicates elevated immune system activity
- Imaging, such as a chest X-ray or echocardiogram, to look for inflammation or valve problems
May is Lupus Awareness Month, a great time to learn more about this disease. Research from the Lupus Foundation of America has found that 66% of people in the U.S. know little to nothing about this disease. There are five million people around the world living with this disease that disproportionately affects women.
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. Take action this May to educate yourself and others about lupus.