It’s part of a family of diseases that includes rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The most common and serious type, systemic lupus erythematosus occurs when the body’s immune system malfunctions and attacks different parts of the body, which causes tissue damage and inflammation in the skin, joints, blood, nervous system, lungs, digestive system and organs. Other types, including subacute cutaneous lupus mainly affect the skin and drug–induced lupus, which occurs after exposure to certain drugs, tends to be milder than the systemic form of lupus. Lupus is chronic but there may be periods of time when symptoms ease up. Heart disease is more common among people with lupus and if you have heart problems with lupus, it worsens your outlook.
Lupus causes The cause of lupus is unknown. Scientists are investigating potential causes, such as hormones, since most lupus patients are women of childbearing age. Genetics may also be a factor and some theorize that a virus or infection may trigger lupus in susceptible people. Sun exposure, infection, excessive alcohol and smoking and even pregnancy can trigger flares or they may occur for no obvious reason.
Lupus symptoms Since lupus can affect different parts of the body it can cause a range of symptoms including a general sick feeling or malaise, loss of appetite, fever, joint and muscle pain or swelling, weight loss; a rash on the cheeks and nose called a malar rash; hair loss; sun sensitivity and ulcers in the mouth, nose and genitals. Some people also have psychiatric symptoms, including psychosis and neurological symptoms, such as seizures. Periods when lupus symptoms are present are called flares and when they subside, you’re in remission.
Lupus diagnosis/tests See your doctor if you notice any symptoms of lupus, particularly skin symptoms, such as a rash, with fatigue, weight loss, joint pain and fever. She will take your medical history and ask about your exposure to drugs or other factors that can trigger lupus. She’ll conduct a medical examination and if she suspects you have lupus will order a blood test to check for the antibody called ANA (antinuclear antibody). Almost all people with the disease have ANA in their blood. Nonetheless, the test is not enough to diagnose the disease since it’s possible to get a false-positive result. Your doctor may order follow-up tests, such as blood tests to check for auto-antibodies and inflammation and a skin or kidney biopsy.
Lupus treatment There is no cure for lupus. The disease is treated with medications, which may include NSAIDS (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as ibuprofen for pain relief; anti-malarial medications, such as hydroxychloroquine which help manage fatigue, skin rashes and joint pain; corticosteroids, including prednisone for inflammation and swelling; and immunosuppressives, such as azathioprine for inflammation. Since the immune system does not work properly with lupus, you should also get regular immunizations against infectious diseases, such as the flu.
Lupus prevention There’s no known way to prevent lupus but it may be possible to guard against flare-ups if you have the disease.
• Minimize sun exposure and use sun screen when you’re outside.
• Eat healthy foods A poor diet, too much alcohol and smoking all trigger lupus symptoms.
• Work out Regular exercise can help prevent flare-ups and help you cope with stress, another lupus trigger.