What is lupus? What causes it?
In general terms, lupus is a disease in which your immune system malfunctions and attacks your healthy tissue. This is known as an autoimmune disease. The consequences of lupus are pretty profound because the body’s immune response can be pretty indiscriminate. Lupus can damage your heart, brain, skin, kidneys, lungs, blood vessels, joints and other tissues, meaning it can present in a multitude of ways. This occurs most often in the type known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The cause is unknown.
Can anyone get lupus? Who is most at risk?
Anyone can get lupus, but certain groups are more at risk, including the following.
- Women are most at risk.
- African American women are affected by lupus two to three times more often than Caucasian women.
- Lupus is also more common in Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women.
- Black and Hispanic women are more likely to have severe forms of lupus.
What are the symptoms of lupus?
Because of the variety of locations that can be affected, lupus can have a wide variety of symptoms in different people. The most common symptoms include joint pain or swelling, muscle pain, fatigue, fever, a red facial rash (aka “butterfly rash”), chest pain with breathing, sun sensitivity, hair loss, eye, leg and gland swelling, and mouth ulcers. The fingers and toes also may tend to become pale or purplish.
Symptoms tend to flare (come and go) and can change in severity and type between attacks, with new symptoms occurring at any time.
How is lupus diagnosed?
The diagnosis of lupus really is often a source of frustration. There’s not a defining diagnostic test, and because it mimics so many other conditions, it can take years for a correct diagnosis to be made. Tests can range to routine blood tests to samples of tissue that looks at suggestive changes under a microscope.
What are the treatments for lupus?
Lupus has no definitive cure. Management focuses on control of the various parts of your body separately affected by the disease. The approach to care involves prevention, prompt treatment and reduction/elimination of long-term damage to the parts of your body (organs) being affected.
Along those lines, treatments also involve two components. The first is to attempt to normalize the immune system, prevent and reduce flare-ups and minimize the pain and other symptoms when flares occur. The second component involves treating the consequences of the organs affected by lupus (e.g. high blood pressure, high cholesterol, infections). In case you were wondering, alternative medicines have not been shown to be effective in treating lupus beyond stress reduction. Given the impact of medications on your immune system, it’s not advisable to add additional medicines to your treatment regimen without coordination with your primary care physician.
As much as anything, those with lupus need to become empowered and active in their management. Routine health activities (diet and exercise) that produce global health benefits, along with stress reduction have often proven to be as important as other components of the care plan. It the best cases, management of lupus is a group activity. Make sure your team is assembled and working in the same direction.
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