What is lupus?
Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus, is a chronic autoimmune disease which can affect many body parts, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, or brain. When lupus occurs, the immune system of the body malfunctions, meaning, though it is responsible for fighting off viruses, bacteria, and germs and protecting the body, it suddenly starts to attack your body’s healthy tissues. In this disease, the immune system becomes overactive as opposed to the condition of HIV when it becomes underactive. This condition can range from mild to life-threatening.
In this article we will look at:
- How does lupus occur?
- Who is prone to lupus?
- Symptoms of lupus
- Diagnosis of lupus
- Complications of lupus
- Treatment for lupus
You can click on any of the links above to navigate to the section of your interest.
How does lupus occur?
The immune system in our bodies is responsible for producing antibodies that fight against antigens (intruders that sneak into our bodies to cause harm) and protect the body against any infections. Lupus occurs when the immune system of the body malfunctions and is unable to differentiate between antigens and healthy tissue. In this condition, the immune system in fact directs antibodies against the healthy tissue in our bodies, along with the antigens, causing swelling, pain, and tissue damage.
There are various types of lupus such as:
- Lupus nephritis: is inflammation of the kidney that is caused by systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
- Neonatal lupus: which affects newborn babies.
- Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus: which causes skin sores on areas of the body exposed to the sun.
- Discoid lupus erythematosus: which causes a skin rash that doesn't easily disappear.
- Drug-induced lupus: which can be caused by certain medicines.
Who is prone to lupus?
The chances of developing lupus are higher in people who:
- are women
- are of black ancestry
- are between the ages of 15 and 45
- have a family history of lupus
- take medicines that are associated with drug-induced systemic lupus
What are the causes of lupus?
The cause of lupus in most cases, is as yet unknown. A few potential triggers include:
- Genetics: A family history of lupus may make you more susceptible to this disease.
- Infections: Contracting an infection can initiate lupus or cause a relapse.
- Sunlight: Exposure to sunlight can trigger a response in susceptible people. Skin lesions may appear.
- Hormones: Both men and women produce estrogen, however, its production is much greater in females. Many women experience symptoms of lupus before menstrual periods and/or during pregnancy when estrogen production is high. This may indicate that estrogen somehow regulates the severity of lupus, however, researchers have not yet found any connection between estrogen, or any other hormone, and lupus.
- Medications: Certain medicines such as anti-seizure medications and antibiotics, can cause lupus can be triggered by certain types of blood pressure medications. These patients usually get better after they stop taking the medicines.
What are the symptoms of lupus? How is lupus diagnosed?
The most common symptoms of lupus include:
- fatigue and fever
- joint pain, stiffness and swelling
- butterfly-shaped rash on the face that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose
- skin lesions that occur due to exposure to the sun
- fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods
- shortness of breath
- chest pain
- dry eyes
- memory loss
Lupus can produce different and often confusing symptoms in the body, so it may take some time for a physician to diagnose it. In fact, this disease is known as 'the great imitator' as its symptoms mimic many other illnesses.
Usually, a general physician can diagnose lupus. Depending on the severity of your condition he may refer you to other specialists such as a dermatologist, cardiologist, nephrologist, neurologist, gastroenterologist, pulmonologist, or a perinatologist.
For diagnosing lupus your doctor will look for your current symptoms such as pain, heat, redness, swelling, and loss of function at a particular place in the body. He will also enquire about your complete medical history, and if you have a family history of lupus.
There is no single diagnostic test for systemic lupus, however, the test usually suggested by doctors for lupus is called the antinuclear antibody (ANA) test. This is not a test specifically for lupus, but this test along with many other laboratory tests can build up a picture providing more information to your doctor and finally confirm if it is lupus.
Other tests include:
- blood test (for complete blood count)
- kidney and liver assessment
- chest X-Ray
- skin biopsy
What are the complications of lupus?
Some major complications of lupus include:
- risk of bleeding or blood clotting
- inflammation of blood vessels
- kidney damage or kidney failure
- inflammation of chest cavity lining (pleurisy)
- behaviour changes
- strokes or seizures.
- inflammation of the heart muscle
- increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks
What is the treatment of lupus?
Medical Treatment for Lupus
Depending on the severity of your condition, your doctor may prescribe medicines to suppress the immune system, reduce inflammation, and treat pain, swelling and fever associated with lupus.
Research shows that lupus patients who exercise build stronger muscles, prevent joint stiffness, control fatigue, and avoid weight gain.
Before deciding on an exercise regimen, make sure to consult your doctor to find out what type of exercises suit you the best since some movements can be harmful if you have swollen joints or muscle pain.
Some exercises that you can consider are yoga, pilates, Tai Chi, dancing, swimming, and bicycling.
Questions answered by trusted doctors
Did you know?
Lupus patients in India
Roughly 3 out of every one lakh people in India suffer from lupus.
Difficult to diagnose
Lupus is very difficult to diagnose and treat, and is more often than not, diagnosed with great delay. It is a non-contagious chronic disease.
More common in women
Lupus is five times more common in women than men. More than 90% of people with lupus are women between the ages of 15 and 45.
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