Like many autoimmune diseases, lupus affects more women than men. In fact, 90 percent of people diagnosed with the life-long condition are young women between the ages of 15 and 34, according to the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation. (S.L.E. stands for systemic lupus erythematosus, the full name of the disease.)
As with its chronic cousins Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, multiple sclerosis, and more, there’s no known cause. Experts suggest a mixture of genetics and environment, but it’s still a mystery as to why some develop lupus. It’s also very hard to diagnose because the effects are broad-ranging and often look like any number of other conditions.
“Lupus can affect almost any part of the body. In a sense, that makes it quite unique to all human diseases,” Jill Buyon, M.D., director of the Lupus Center at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. Its symptoms also vary immensely from person to person. “The main message is that my lupus may be different from your lupus,” Buyon says. “We could have 333 people in a room and none of them have the same presentation until the 334th person walks in,” she explains. Some people get hit hard with symptoms right away, while others may experience one or two subtly that worsen over time. Unspecific symptoms, such as fever and lymph node swelling, can occur because of lupus, but fail to signal the disease to doctors in the absence of other telltale signs. A diagnosis usually takes a “constellation of signs and symptoms,” says Buyon.
While generally feeling unwell or like something is “off” is common among those who are ultimately diagnosed with lupus, the specific signs and symptoms of the disease are plentiful. “There are dominant features,” Buyon notes—symptoms that are very characteristic of the disease and can help doctors recognize what’s going on. Below are the most common signs of lupus. If you think you may have it, see your doctor to talk about your concerns ASAP.