Overview and Facts
Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which the body’s system of protection against illness and infection attacks healthy tissue instead. It can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, brain, heart and blood vessels with mild to severe outcomes. There is no complete cure, although lupus can often be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), women account for 90 percent of lupus cases, which typically begin between the ages of 15 and 44. African American women have the highest rate of occurrence, followed by Hispanic, Asian and Native American women; Caucasian women have the lowest incidence. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that there are more than 1.5 million lupus cases in the U.S.
Signs and Symptoms
Lupus symptoms manifest in ways that can easily be mistaken for other conditions. Each patient tends to show a few typical signs, but there is no set pattern that defines the disease. Some symptoms of lupus include:
- Red rash, especially on the face
- Painful or swollen joints
- Muscle pain
- Persistent fatigue
- Fever with no known cause
- Skin lesions that develop or become worse from the sun
- Mouth ulcers
- Shortness of breath or chest pain with deep breaths
- Fingers and toes turning purple or pale with cold or stress
- Hair loss
- Leg or facial swelling
- Swollen glands
- Headaches, seizures, confusion or memory loss
Certain elements of lupus are more common in specific groups. The NIH reports that African Americans and Hispanics generally develop lupus at a younger age, have more symptoms, including kidney problems, and often have more severe forms of the disease. African Americans experience seizures or strokes at higher rates, and Hispanics have a greater incidence of heart trouble.
Causes and Diagnosis
The cause of lupus is not entirely known. Since multiple members within a family can be affected, genetics may contribute. There is some evidence that hormones play a role, given that women of childbearing years are most affected; however, men also develop lupus. Sunlight, stress and some medications can all trigger symptoms.
A lupus diagnosis can be difficult to pin down due to its wide-ranging effects. Patients can also have different symptoms at different times. It may take significant time and the input of doctors from various specialties to diagnose lupus.
The Mayo Clinic recommends contacting a physician if unexplained rashes develop or if there is persistent fatigue, fever or general achiness. Any of these may be a sign of lupus.
Tests and Treatment Options
Physicians will perform a complete exam and take a patient’s full medical history. They may take skin or kidney biopsies. Urine tests detect certain proteins that reveal the existence and severity of kidney disease. Following up with blood tests may prevent the need for kidney biopsies. Blood tests also show the presence of antibodies that can predict symptom flares.
Lupus treatment generally involves symptom control and flare prevention. Special creams help relieve skin rashes. Simple medications, including aspirin and ibuprofen, can reduce fever, aches and inflammation. Corticosteroids may be prescribed if stronger anti-inflammatory control becomes necessary, although long-term use may cause serious side effects. Antimalarial drugs help lessen severe symptoms. Immune suppressants help control lupus as well, although suppressants increase the risk of infection or disease, including cancer.
Regular doctor visits are important to track symptoms over time and receive tests or medications that help prevent or control flares.
Helpful Tips and Home Remedies
Treatment for lupus should include a number of lifestyle changes or enhancements that assist in lessening or preventing symptom flares:
- Eat Healthy – A healthy diet gives the body the best chance of functioning optimally. The Mayo Clinic suggests an emphasis on whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
- Exercise – Moderate exercise helps keep the body healthy and reduces stress, both of which aid in controlling flares. Walking, jogging, stretching and weight-bearing activities are all beneficial.
- Rest – Fatigue can be debilitating, and getting adequate rest is important. Pacing activities and taking breaks before tiredness sets in will also help reduce stress triggers.
- Lower Stress – Activities like yoga or meditation can help keep stress at a minimum. Having an adequate support system, including the opportunity to share experiences with others who have lupus, provides noticeable results in reducing symptoms.
- Avoid Smoking – Smoking can increase lupus’ effects on the heart and blood vessels. Quitting smoking altogether is the best option.
- Sun Protection – It’s important to avoid excessive sun exposure and to use sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 55 during time outdoors. Wearing long sleeves, long pants and a hat provides additional protection.