How to Find Out If You Have Lupus: Signs, Symptoms and Tests

Lupus purple ribbon
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Lupus is a long-term autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is when your immune system, which usually helps protect the body and fight infections, attacks healthy tissues and organs instead. 

This can cause swelling and pain in any part of your body. If you have lupus, you might have symptoms like joint pain, tiredness, fever, and skin rashes. Lupus can also cause organ damage and other serious health problems.

There are several types of lupus, but systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common. There is no cure for lupus, but there are different medicines that you can use to manage it. Medicines and lifestyle adjustments can really improve your symptoms of lupus and reduce its impact on your life.

Who Is at Risk For Lupus?

Photos of a diverse people who could be at risk for lupus
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Anyone can develop lupus but some people may be at higher risk. Some things that may put you at a higher risk for lupus are:

  • Sex: Almost 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with lupus are females. 
  • Age: People between the ages of 14 to 45 are more likely to be diagnosed with lupus. This is when symptoms usually begin.
  • Race: People from certain racial or ethnic groups may be at higher risk of lupus. This includes Black or African American, Asian American, Hispanic or Latinx, Native American, or Pacific Islander populations.
  • Family History: People with a family history of autoimmune disease are at higher risk for lupus. This is true even though no single gene has been identified as the cause of lupus.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Lupus?

Female sharing lupus symptom with doctor
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Lupus can be hard to diagnose because the symptoms are similar to other health conditions. Also, no two cases of lupus are exactly alike. In some cases, mild symptoms may develop slowly, coming on one at a time. In other cases, people may have sudden or severe symptoms. 

The most common symptoms of lupus include:

  • A rash on your cheeks and bridge of nose in the shape of a butterfly
  • Skin rashes or lesions that appear or get worse with sun exposure
  • Feeling really tired no matter how much rest you get
  • Pain or stiffness in your joints and muscles
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Hair loss

Other possible symptoms of lupus may include:

  • Swelling in your hands and feet
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when you are cold and stressed
  • Dry eyes
  • Sores in your mouth and nose
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stomach pain

Most people with lupus experience flares or episodes. During flares your symptoms may get worse for a while before getting better. They may even disappear altogether until the next flare happens. 

Flares may be caused by different things like:

  • Recent infections
  • Reaction to a drug
  • Exposure to sunlight

If you have any of the symptoms in this article, talk to your doctor. Your doctor will help determine the cause of your symptoms and make a diagnosis. They may also refer you to a specialist known as a rheumatologist who has additional training and experience with health conditions that affect your joints, muscles, and bones.

What Are the Tests for Lupus?

There is no single test to diagnose lupus. Many different tests are used to get a better picture of your health condition. Part of this process is ruling out other potential causes of your symptoms such as diabetes and arthritis

Lupus is typically diagnosed based on a combination of:

  • Reviewing your personal and family medical history
  • Evaluating your symptoms
  • Getting a physical health exam
  • Running some blood and urine tests
  • Getting images taken by your doctor to look for anything out of the ordinary

Some laboratory tests used to diagnose lupus are:

  • Urine tests are one of the most common and easiest ways to begin testing for lupus. The urine sample checks for high levels of red blood cells or proteins. This would mean your kidneys or liver are not working properly — which may be a sign of lupus.
  • Complete blood count is a blood test that measures the amount of red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets, and hemoglobin. If any of these are at different from typical levels, it may be a sign of lupus.
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate is a blood test that shows how fast red blood cells settle to the bottom of a test tube. A faster rate may be a sign of many different health conditions, including lupus.
  • Blood tests for kidney and liver function can tell if lupus is damaging these organs.
  • Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test looks for a certain type of antibody that’s more common in people with lupus. Antibodies are proteins in your blood that defend against germs and illnesses. But when you have an autoimmune disease like lupus, you may have antibodies that attack healthy tissue instead. A positive ANA test result doesn’t necessarily mean you have lupus, but it’s one sign your doctor can use as part of your diagnosis.

Finally, depending on your symptoms, your doctor may send you to have some imaging tests done. This could include:

  • Chest x-ray – this is done to see if there is any inflammation or fluid in your lungs.
  • Echocardiogram – this is used to check for any visible problems with your heart.

Next Steps If You Are Diagnosed With Lupus?

If you are diagnosed with lupus, your doctor will advise you to have regular checkups including blood and urine tests to monitor your health and check for any other problems. They will may also recommend a course of medications to treat your symptoms. 

In addition to taking medications, there are a number of things you can do to help manage your symptoms and prevent your condition from getting worse. Try some of the following:

  • Practice sun safety — Avoid direct sunlight by staying in the shade when possible. Use SPF 50+ sunscreen, and wear a hat when you are in the sun.
  • Eat Healthy – Eat a healthy balanced diet with plenty of fruits, veggies, proteins and whole grains.
  • Quit smoking – Smoking can make lupus symptoms worse. So if you smoke, make a plan to quit.
  • Move more – Try to stay active even on days when you don’t feel well. Try to pace yourself as well, to avoid getting too tired.
  • Practice self-care – Stress can make symptoms worse. Make time to do things that reduce stress.
  • Get support – Don’t be afraid to ask for help from your family, friends and doctors. You may also want to let your employer know about your condition so they can adjust your workload or provide flexible hours if you need it.