Lupus at a Glance
What Is Lupus?
Lupus, more technically known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune disease affecting more than five million people worldwide. It occurs when the body's immune system becomes confused and starts attacking the body's own tissues. In lupus, the connective tissues are especially affected, although the rest of the body can also be damaged as the disease progresses. The disease is characterized by flare-ups interspersed with periods of remission.
Who Gets Lupus?
Lupus affects primarily young women, although it can also be found in men. No one knows exactly why some people develop lupus, but it appears to have both a genetic and environmental component. Recent research has found a host of genetic biomarkers that indicate a predisposition to the disease. However, not everyone who has these markers will develop the disease.
What Causes the Onset of the Disease?
The trigger is usually some form of traumatic event such as extreme emotional disturbance, stress, sunburn, hormonal imbalance, or an infection. In some, certain prescription drugs seem to trigger the first onset of the disease. In these cases, discontinuation of the medication usually causes a complete reversal.
The symptoms of lupus vary from relatively mild to severe and life-altering. Many refer to managing the condition as "living with the wolf" (lupus in Latin means wolf). The most common symptoms of lupus are the following:
- swollen joints
- kidney problems
Of these, the fatigue and continuous inflammation have the greatest impact on quality of life, although the rash, especially if on the face, can often cause more psychological ailments such as loss of confidence and social anxiety. In some cases, the following symptoms are added to the burden of the disease:
- sensitivity to the sun
- chest pain
- hair loss
The treatment for lupus is tailored to fit the patient's needs, and is adjusted based on age, gender, severity of the disease, and general health. Common treatments include corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and antimalarials (drugs initially developed to fight malaria that have also proven effective in helping prevent flare-ups in some lupus patients). While all three of these medication types can do much to help treat and prevent lupus flare-ups, they all have unfortunate side-effects. Corticosteroids, the most common treatment, can cause weight gain, mood-swings, and swelling. In addition, prolonged usage, such as is necessary in treating a chronic condition such as lupus, can be very dangerous and can damage the arteries, as well as causing hypertension and osteoporosis. NSAIDS and antimalarials both carry their own risks, including upset stomach, diarrhea, and in rare cases, inflammation of the liver and kidney or retinal damage. Sadly, these treatments, despite their dangers and price, are often not enough. A big part of treatment is acceptance and learning to deal with what can't be changed, and trying to make the best of a difficult situation.