What Is Lupus? Stages, Symptoms, & Treatment
Not many people are familiar with the disease called lupus. In fact, according to the Lupus Foundation of America, around 72% of Americans between the ages of 18 to 34 know little to nothing about the disease. That's especially disturbing because individuals in that age range are among those the most at risk.
One reason lupus doesn't attract attention is because it's difficult to diagnose. Symptoms are very common and can include pain, swelling, skin rashes, and fatigue.These same symptoms are often associated with various other health problems, which makes it difficult to determine when and if you might have lupus.
It takes an average of almost six years for a person with lupus to get an accurate diagnosis. Therefore, learning about lupus could save you or a loved one from years of frustration.
What Is Lupus?
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that the cells that destroy invaders get confused and start to attack your healthy tissue. Here are some terms that will help you to understand lupus better:
- Chronic: Lupus is a chronic disease, meaning that it will affect a person throughout their life.
- Flares: Lupus symptoms can often go in cycles, meaning that they fade and then worsen. When symptoms start to get worse, they're typically called flares.
- Genetics: Lupus researchers have found that the genes that are passed down in your family can have an impact on whether you develop lupus.
- SLE or Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: The disease commonly known as lupus.
Stages and Types of Lupus
There are four forms of lupus:
- Systemic Lupus: This is the most common type and can affect major organs.
- Cutaneous Lupus: This form only affects the skin, but people with cutaneous lupus can later develop systemic lupus.
- Drug-Induced Lupus: Some prescription drugs can cause lupus-type symptoms. Usually, major organs aren’t affected, and the symptoms will disappear when you stop taking the pills.
- Neonatal Lupus: While most infants born from mothers who have lupus are healthy, temporary lupus-type symptoms or heart defects can occur.
Symptoms and Causes
No two cases of lupus are alike. Lupus can target the heart, joints, lungs, skin, kidneys, blood, and brain. People who have lupus can suffer from one or several of these symptoms:
- Swollen, painful or stiff joints
- Face rashes, often butterfly-shaped
- Skin rashes that get worse when the patient is in the sun
- Shortness of breath
- Pain in the chest or head
- Dry eyes
- Confusion and memory loss
Currently, researchers believe that some people’s genetics might make them more susceptible to developing lupus. Things that can contribute to developing the disease include extreme exposure to sunlight, infections, some types of antibiotics, and certain medications, including ones for high blood pressure and heart arrhythmias.
Prevention and Risks
At this time, researchers haven’t identified an effective way to prevent lupus. However, thanks to the work of the Lupus Foundation, we do know some things that might make a person more or less susceptible to developing the disease, including the following:
- Gender: Of the 1.5 million Americans with lupus, 90% are women.
- Age: Most cases of lupus develop in people who are between 15-44 years old.
- Genetics: 20% of those with lupus have a parent or sibling with the disease.
- Ethnic Origin: Compared to Caucasian women, lupus is two to three times more likely to affect women who are Native American, Alaskan, Hawaiian, African-American, Asian, or Hispanic.
Diagnosis and Tests
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to diagnosis lupus with one lab test. However, there are things a doctor can see such as swollen joints, protein in the urine, fluid around the lungs or heart, or a skin rash.
Your doctor will also consider your medical history and the history of your family members. The lack of a specific test for lupus makes diagnosis very complicated. If your doctor thinks you might have lupus, they will typically refer you to a rheumatologist, a specialist who treats diseases that affect the joints, muscles, and bones.
While your rheumatologist will treat many of your symptoms, you may also be referred to other specialists depending on whether you have problems with skin rashes, your kidneys, heart, or brain.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
Your doctor will develop a treatment plan tailored to you. Because every case of lupus is different, there isn’t one standard treatment approach. Without a cure, treatment focuses on controlling symptoms. The most common medications are anti-inflammatories such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen. Doctors also sometimes prescribe steroids to reduce the inflammatory symptoms of lupus quickly.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
You can make lifestyle changes so that living with lupus will be easier. Even if you’re not having symptoms, get plenty of sleep to help your body heal itself. You should also exercise regularly to improve flexibility in your joints and build bone and muscle strength. Likewise, control the amount of time you spend in the sun. Avoid being in the sun when it's at its most intense, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. When you are in the sun, always wear sunblock.
There isn’t a special diet for people with lupus. If you have lupus, you’ll want to eat a healthy and nutritious diet to help your body cope with your symptoms. Tips include eating more calcium-rich food (though be careful with dairy), choosing fatty fish over red meat, and eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
Avoid foods that can aggravate your symptoms. For example, alfalfa and alfalfa supplements may cause lupus flares, and some people say that "nightshade" vegetables like potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers cause flares, but there's no scientific evidence to support that.
When you have a flare, think about the foods you ate shortly before. What you eat can contribute to flares, but everyone with lupus reacts to food differently.
If you’re feeling tired and you have sore, swollen joints or any other signs of lupus, you should make an appointment with your primary care doctor. Your doctor can help you determine if lupus is the cause of your symptoms.
If your doctor has diagnosed you with lupus, there are specialists who can help you manage your condition with medications and lifestyle changes.
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