October is Lupus Awareness Month. The aim of the month is to raise awareness of the condition, the varying symptoms that people with lupus can exhibit and its impact on the lives of the many people who live with it.

Lupus is an immune system illness that mainly affects females and can affect any part of the body. Due to the variety of symptoms that lupus can produce, it often goes undiagnosed for long periods and during this time can cause damage to a number of different organs such as the skin, lungs, heart and brain. Lupus is believed to be genetic in origin, and there is no known cure.

Symptoms usually start in early adulthood, anywhere from the teen years into the 30s. People with lupus generally experience flare-ups of symptoms followed by periods of remission. That’s why early symptoms are easy to dismiss.

Because early symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, having them doesn’t necessarily mean you have lupus. Early symptoms can include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • hair loss
  • rash
  • pulmonary problems
  • kidney problems
  • swollen joints
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • thyroid problems
  • dry mouth and eyes

No single test can tell if a person has lupus. But your doctor can find out if you have lupus in other ways, including:

  • Medical history. Tell your doctor about your symptoms and other problems. Keep track of your symptoms by writing them down when they happen. Also, track how long they last.
  • Family history of lupus or other autoimmune diseases. Tell your doctor if lupus or other autoimmune diseases run in your family.
  • Complete physical exam. Your doctor will look for rashes and other signs that something is wrong.
  • Blood and urine tests. The antinuclear antibody (ANA) test can show if your immune system is more likely to make the autoantibodies of lupus. Most people with lupus test positive for ANA. But, a positive ANA does not always mean you have lupus. If you test positive for ANA, your doctor will likely order more tests for antibodies
  • Skin or kidney biopsy. A biopsy is a minor surgery to remove a sample of tissue. The tissue is then viewed under a microscope. Skin and kidney tissue looked at in this way can show signs of an autoimmune disease.

Your doctor may use any or all of these tests to make your diagnosis. They also can help your doctor rule out other diseases that can be confused with lupus.