Systemic lupus erythematosus, often abbreviated to simply lupus, affects at least 1.5 million Americans, the Lupus Foundations of America (LFA) reports. Lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks organs and joints, affects mostly women of childbearing age and attacks black and Asian women moreso than Caucasians. There are several forms of lupus, with systemic lupus being the most serious. Early signs of lupus sometimes confound medical personnel because they vary considerably from person to person, depending on the organs the disease attacks.
The name lupus literally means “wolf.” The disease was so named because of the characteristic rash that often affects sufferers. The lupus rash occurs most often on the face, and is known as a “butterfly rash” because it appears on both cheeks and crosses the nose, roughly in the shape of a butterfly. The rash can be flat or slightly raised and may also occur on the chest, neck and elbows, the Merck Manual explains. Mouth ulcers and ulcers inside the nose can also occur. Inflammation in blood vessels often causes rashes or nodules under the skin.
Many people with lupus have Raynaud’s disease, a mottling of the fingers when exposed to cold or stress, the Mayo Clinic states. Hair loss, known as alopecia, also affects many people with lupus. Sun sensitivity is another of the signs used to diagnose lupus, according to the LFA.
Fever and fatigue often occur as early lupus symptoms. Fever may come and go. Patients may also experience weight loss or weight gain.
Up to 90 percent of people with lupus have pain and swelling in their joints, according to Merck. Joint pain and swelling can be the earliest sign of lupus. Unlike certain types of arthritis, lupus usually doesn’t cause joint distortion. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications treat joint symptoms in mild cases. Severe disease may require corticosteroid treatment.
Lupus often results in blood abnormalities. A high anti-nuclear antibody level is often used to screen for possible lupus. Anemia, a low red blood count, leucopenia, a low white blood cell count, and thrombocytopenia, a low platelet count, may be early signs of lupus as well. Around five to ten percent of people with lupus have a false positive test of syphilis, Merck states.
Lupus can affect any organ in the body, including the brain. Early symptoms of lupus may include lung and heart infections as well as decreased kidney function, which is diagnosed by protein and sediment in the urine. Neurological symptoms can include headache, seizures, personality changes and stroke.
Lupus often flares, or worsens, during pregnancy. Flareups during pregnancy can cause early or late fetal demise, the Merck Manual states. Babies born to mothers with lupus may have a heart condition called congenital heart block.
About this Author
Sharon Perkins has worked as a registered nurse in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. Perkins started writing professionally for the Wiley “Dummies” series in 2001, and has co-authored seven books for the series, and acted as developmental editor for several more. Perkins received her registered nursing degree from Western Oklahoma State College in 1986.