The Basics: Understanding Lupus
What Is Lupus
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, also called systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. It can be a very vague disease and is hard to diagnose. Symptoms may come and go over a period of time (called flares and remission) and vary in type and intensity. An autoimmune disease is a disease where the body, through the immune system, attacks itself rather than the harmful bacteria or viruses that it's supposed to attack. This causes inflammation and can affect and harm many parts of the body, including the heart, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and blood cells. There is no cure for lupus; those who have it will have it their whole lives. Symptoms can come and go but can to some extent be controlled.
Common Symptoms of Lupus
Common symptoms may include the following, but many people experience individual symptoms:
- Achy or painful joints
- Muscle pain
- Skin rash or sores, including a butterfly rash across the cheeks and nose
- Sensitivity to sunlight
- Mental health problems, including anxiety, headaches, depression or memory loss
- Heart problems
- Changes in weight
- Hair loss, in patches or all over; usually not permanent
- Swollen lymph glands
- Inflammation of blood vessels in the skin
- Raynaud's phenomenon
There are many conditions with symptoms similar to lupus, which makes it very hard to diagnose. These conditions include fibromyalgia, rheumatic fever, chronic fatigue syndrome, vasculitis, arthritis, and Sjorgren's syndrome.
What Causes Lupus?
No one knows exactly what causes lupus. It is not contagious. There may be a genetic component to the disease, affecting how the immune system works and increasing the risk of developing lupus. It could also be a combination of many factors.
What Causes Flares?
A number of factors can cause lupus flares by affecting the immune system. Smoking and certain medications can trigger lupus, as can exposure to sunlight or UV light rays. There is evidence of a hormone link, although scientists aren't sure what the link is exactly. Some infections may trigger lupus, including hepatitis C, the Epstein-Barr virus and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
Treating lupus involves treating the symptoms of lupus during flares. Anti-inflammatory medications may be used to pain, corticosteroids for rashes and anti-malarial medicines for fatigue, joint pain and inflammation. Medicine to slow the immune system may be used as well.
Living With Lupus
People with lupus often adapt certain habits and lifestyle to manage their disease. Reducing stress is very important to keep the immune system healthy, as is a balanced diet and regular activity. Those whose lupus is triggered by UV light must work to avoid excess sunlight and wear protection when outdoors. Education may be the most important factor; learning to live with lupus, identify the signs and know what triggers a flare are the most beneficial methods of living with lupus.