Our immune system chugs along, year after year, just like the Little Engine That Could. As we age, though, our body becomes more susceptible to infections and diseases. One disease in particular, lupus, is known to affect many women when they reach childbearing age. The Lupus Foundation of America predicts that 1.5 million Americans have this autoimmune disease, and that more than 16,ooo new cases are reported every year in the U.S. Take a look below to see if you recognize any of the signs or symptoms of lupus in your or a loved one.
What is it? Lupus is a chronic (or long-lasting), autoimmune disease that targets the skin, joints, and organs within the body. Our immune system serves as our most important source of protection against threats like viruses, bacteria, and germs. It utilizes essential antibodies to ward off these dangers. Bodies that are overtaken by an autoimmune disease have a hard time differentiating between these foreign infections and the healthy tissues and substances in the body. Our immune system creates autoantibodies that launch an attack against those healthy tissues, which can lead to inflammation, pain, and damage to the body. While lupus can be life-threatening, it is easily managed.
What causes it? Although the causes of lupus are primarily unknown, there are several risk factors that are undergoing extensive research. Some of these include:
- Environment: Experts believe that elements like sunlight, stress, smoking, viruses, and certain medications may trigger symptoms in those who are more susceptible to lupus.
- Hormones: Hormones such as estrogen are under examination as well, since lupus affects women of childbearing age more than anyone else.
- Pre-existing problems with the immune system: A weakened immune system can lead to a variety of conditions, especially autoimmune diseases like lupus.
- Genetics: Although genes play an important role in this disease, only about 10 percent of people diagnosed with lupus have a family member who possesses it as well.
What are the symptoms? Lupus consists of a whole range of symptoms, and each person is affected differently. Lupus is known as a disease of flares, meaning that symptoms tend to come and go. Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Joint pain and stiffness, with or without swelling
- Muscle aches, pains or weakness
- Fever, with no known cause
- Feeling very tired
- Butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks
- Unusual weight loss or weight gain
- Anemia, or too few red blood cells
- Trouble thinking, memory problems, confusion
- Kidney problems with no known cause
For a more complete list of symptoms, check out the Office on Women's Health's lupus fact sheet.
How is it diagnosed? Lupus is often challenging to identify, since it resembles many other autoimmune diseases. However, physicians have a variety of techniques that can help diagnose this condition. These include:
- A medical history, completed by your doctor
- A complete family history of lupus or other autoimmune diseases
- A physical examination to check for outward signs like rashes
- Blood and urine tests
- A skin or kidney biopsy to examine tissues
How is it treated? Although there is no known cure for lupus, there are a multitude of medicines that can help reduce major symptoms, like swelling and pain, flares, damage to the joints, and organ damage. These medications are often one of the following:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), which help reduce swelling and pain in the joints.
- Corticosteroids, or manmade hormones that control our cortisol levels, can reduce swelling, tenderness, and pain throughout the body. They can also suppress the immune system.
- Antimalarial drugs, which can be used to help treat malaria, and are often used to manage joint pain, rashes, fatigue and inflammation of the lungs.
- BLyS-specific inhibitors, which actually reduce the number of autoantibodies found in people suffering from lupus.
- Immunosuppressive agents, like chemotherapy, are used in severe cases of lupus. They reduce the extensive amount of damage done to organs by suppressing the immune system.
With the right kind of care and treatment, lupus can be incredibly manageable. Many people who suffer from this condition go on to live long, fulfilling lives. If you believe you may be suffering from the above systems, feel free to consult our sources for further information: Lupus Foundation of America, Office on Women's Health, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases.