Because lupus is different for everyone who has it, lupus symptoms in teenagers vary, just as symptoms vary in adults. However, there are certain concerns specific to teens, especially if there is a family history of lupus or other autoimmune diseases.
Lupus is far more likely to appear in women than men – 9 out of every 10 lupus cases are women. Most of these cases develop between the ages of 15 and 45, which might indicate that the female hormones estrogen and progesterone are a factor, as levels of these hormones are highest in this age group. Studies have yielded mixed results; pregnant women have lower estrogen and progesterone levels and so do women fifty and older, but lupus also frequently appears in women with lower hormone levels.
Symptoms of lupus in teenagers can be more difficult to treat. Teens have not stopped growing, and require sufficient levels of calcium to form strong, healthy bone tissue. Both lupus and lupus medications can cause mineral loss that leads to poorly developed bones and stunted growth. Teens may also resist taking medications regularly, neglect proper nutrition or fail to adequately protect themselves from strong sunlight or athletic injuries. For this reason, pediatric rheumatologists, who specialize in treating autoimmune diseases (like lupus) in teenagers, will often continue to treat their patients even after they begin college, to ensure they receive consistent medical care.
Signs of Lupus in Teenagers
As with adults, teens who display at least four of the eleven characteristic lupus symptoms established by the American College of Rheumatology are diagnosed with the disease. This can include noticeable symptoms like aches, sores, rashes or skin lesions and fever, or more subtle symptoms such as abnormalities in blood test results or protein in the urine (a sign of kidney problems.)
Unfortunately, many of the medications used to treat lupus were originally intended for other types of illness – and side effects from their use can also produce signs of lupus in teenagers. Corticosteroids, in particular, have notoriously long lists of unpleasant side effects that include lupus-like symptoms such as stomach pain, poor bone growth and mineral deficiency and muscle weakness.
Lupus in adults is painful, frustrating and debilitating; lupus in teenagers is all of that, magnified by constant social pressure. Joint pain and photosensitivity make it more difficult to participate in sports; lupus fatigue and mental fog make concentration on schoolwork a constant struggle and often mean activities with friends must be cut short or re-scheduled.
What’s more, lupus symptoms can include rashes, skin lesions, scarring and hair loss, and lupus medications can cause acne, swelling in the face and weight gain. Symptoms of lupus in teenagers, therefore, also include depression, social anxiety and low self-esteem, a tendency to withdraw and avoid interactions with peers and feelings of helplessness or fear.
It is very important that a teenager be an active participant in any discussions with her doctor, and involved in the creation of a treatment plan. Whenever possible, teens should participate in sports or club activities that interest them – the goal is to live a normal life. Parents should help the teen be consistent about her health; taking medication and vitamins as prescribed, protecting fragile skin from bright sunlight, eating well and getting sufficient rest. Most of all, a teen with lupus should have a strong support system ready to listen and to help. Lupus in teenagers presents a unique set of challenges; the good news is, with consistent care, sensible precautions and the help of friends and family, those challenges can be overcome.