Doctors Explain The Subtle Warning Signs Of Lupus

#6: Your fingers turn white when you’re cold.

by Carina Wolff and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
A woman lies on a bed against a green wall. Fatigue is one of lupus' subtle warning signs doctors wa...
Ashley Batz/Bustle

You might know about lupus from House or because Selena Gomez has it, but when it comes to identifying its symptoms, it's pretty common for people to draw a blank. There are a number of subtle warning signs of lupus all people should know, especially since the disease tends to affect women between the ages of 15 and 34. Although some people do get a deluge of symptoms all at once, others experience only a couple of subtle symptoms at a time. It's easy to ignore some of these symptoms, since they may seem like no big deal — but if several of them are happening at once, it's important to see a doctor to test for the disease.

"Lupus is a disease that is caused by something going wrong with the immune system — the part of the body that fights off invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, and other germs," Dr. Saurabh Sethi, M.D., M.P.H. tells Bustle. "Typically, B cells in our immune system produce proteins called antibodies that protect the body from these invaders. In a person with lupus, some B cells, called autoreactive B cells, react against your own body. The autoreactive B cells produce a type of protein called an autoantibody. Unlike normal antibodies, which react against foreign invaders, the autoantibodies attack your own body." Which is really unhelpful.

Some of these symptoms can be difficult to deal with on a daily basis. Consulting your doctor is the first step to getting help if you notice any of these nine subtle warning signs of lupus.



Do you feel like you get way more headaches than you're supposed to? Compared with the general population, people with lupus may be twice as likely to experience migraine-like headaches, commonly known as lupus headaches, says Dr. Sethi. "The features of lupus headaches are similar to migraines and may be seen more often in people who also have Raynaud’s phenomenon" a disease that causes fingers and toes to feel numb and change color in the cold," he says. "However, headaches can also be caused by vasculitis, a symptom of active lupus due to inflammation of the blood vessels."

Of course, not all headaches will immediately indicate lupus — sometimes you just haven't drunk enough water, or you watched too much Netflix — but talk to your doctor if frequent migraines are causing you concern.



If you often feel you're operating on low battery mode, it might be a symptom of lupus. "Fatigue is one of the top complaints of people with symptoms of lupus," registered nurse Rebecca Lee, R.N., tells Bustle. "This fatigue can get in the way of your everyday life and activities." Like headaches, fatigue can have many causes: stress, hangovers, staying up late for just one more episode of Selling Sunset... Speaking with your doctor is the best way to get to the root of the cause.


Joint Swelling

"Inflammation can cause pain, stiffness, and visible swelling in your joints, particularly in the morning," says Dr. Sethi. "It may be mild at first and gradually become more obvious. Like other symptoms of lupus, joint problems can come and go." That tendency to say "ouch" every time you bend your arm for your morning coffee could mean something more serious.


Chest Pain

Lupus can cause lung inflammation, which can extend to lung blood vessels and the diaphragm. "These conditions can lead to chest pain when one tries to breathe in," says Dr. Sethi, adding that it's known as pleuritic chest pain. If you notice that it hurts to breathe, accompanied by these other symptoms, consulting with your doctor can help you figure out if lupus is the cause.


Face Rash

You wake up, and suddenly your face looks like a page in a nature textbook. "One of the most common symptoms of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash that appears over the bridge of the nose and on both cheeks," says Dr. Sethi. "Almost 50% of people with lupus have this rash. It can occur suddenly or appear after exposure to sunlight."


Your Fingers Change Colors When You're Cold

People with lupus can have the smaller vessels in their fingers and toes highly constrict in response to temperature changes, a syndrome called Raynaud’s phenomenon, says Dr. Sethi. "This can cause the fingers and toes turn white or blue." If your fingers look like you've survived an encounter with Elsa, lupus could be the cause.


Hair Loss Or Thinning

"Hair loss all over the body is one of the early symptoms of lupus," says Lee. "This is caused by inflammation in the body, which also affects the scalp." Hair can fall out in clumps, become brittle and break easily, while thinning slowly. It's not the end of the world, but thinning or losing hair can be caused by a variety of things, like thyroid issues, so a doctor's appointment can help you sort out the cause.


Acid Reflux

Acid reflux — that lovely stinging, fiery feeling in your mouth as stomach acid comes up to say hello — is another symptom common in lupus, says Lee. This can also be accompanied by other issues in the gastrointestinal system, including problems with the liver, pancreas, bile ducts, and gallbladder. If you are experiencing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or constipation, and believe lupus may be to blame, talk with your doctor.


Low-Grade Fever

"An early symptom of lupus is an unexplained low-grade fever," says Lee. "Chronic low-grade fevers can be an indication of inflammation, inflection, and lupus flare-ups. This fever can come and go and may not cause much alarm since it usually does not go above 101 degrees F." If you're always running hot and you have no idea why, it's a good idea to check in with a doctor.

Done the detective work and think that lupus might be on the table? Be sure to see a doctor who can help you get a proper diagnosis.


Rebecca Lee R.N.

Dr. Saurabh Sethi, M.D., M.P.H

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