May is National Lupus Awareness Month. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which your immune system, your body’s natural defense against infection and disease, becomes hyperactive and attacks healthy tissue. Lupus can cause inflammation and pain in just about any area of your body, including your skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, blood and heart. Lupus can range in severity from mild to life-threatening.
The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that 1.5 million Americans have some form of lupus. And based on available data, the foundation estimates that there are 16,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Nine out of 10 Americans living with lupus are women. Most people develop the disease between the ages of 15 and 44.
There are four forms of lupus:
Systemic lupus erythematosus is the most common, accounting for 70 percent of all cases. As a systemic condition, SLE affects multiple organs and systems throughout the body.
Cutaneous lupus affects the skin. People with this form of lupus may experience skin issues such as a sensitivity to the sun and rashes as well as hair loss.
Drug-induced lupus is caused by certain medications. People with this form often have the same symptoms as people with SLE, but they’re usually temporary. This form of lupus typically goes away after you stop taking the responsible medication.
Neonatal lupus is a rare form found in infants. In this case, the mother had lupus at the time of pregnancy or developed the condition later in life. Not all infants born to mothers with lupus will have this condition.
The cause of lupus is unknown, but hormonal, environmental and genetic factors appear to play a role. In addition to age and sex, risk factors include race (people of African, Asian and Native American descent have a higher chance of developing lupus), family history (lupus sometimes affects more than one member of a family) and contact with certain viruses and chemicals.
Because lupus can affect many parts of the body, there are a variety of symptoms. Not everyone with lupus experiences the same set of symptoms or the same severity. Sometimes symptoms are barely present (in remission) and sometimes they are more severe (flare-up). Common symptoms include:
• Muscle and joint pain
• Swollen joints
• Extreme fatigue
• Pain in your chest when breathing deeply (pleurisy)
• A butterfly-shaped rash across your cheeks and nose (malar rash)
• Hair loss
• Issues with the kidneys, heart or lungs
• Sensitivity to the sun and other light sources
• Sores in your mouth or nose
• Memory problems
• Pale or purple fingers or toes in response to cold or stress (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
The process for diagnosing lupus can be long and difficult. Lupus is known as “the great imitator” because its symptoms mimic other disorders. In addition, symptoms can be unclear, flare up and go into remission, and change over time. On average, it takes nearly six years for people with lupus to get an accurate diagnosis.
There is no test to diagnose lupus. Your doctor will begin by asking questions about your personal and family medical history, as well as questions about your symptoms. The doctor will examine you and may order lab tests, including blood and urine tests, to determine how your immune system is working and check for signs of inflammation in your body. Urine tests can show if your kidneys have been damaged by the autoimmune disease.
There’s no cure for lupus. Treatment is focused on controlling symptoms and limiting the damage to your body. Your doctor will create a comprehensive treatment plan that typically includes medications, such as anti-inflammatory and immunosuppressive drugs. Certain chemotherapy drugs and monoclonal antibodies (laboratory-created proteins that mimic the germ-fighting action of the immune system) may also be used.
There are also some lifestyle changes you can make that can help you better manage your lupus. These include:
Avoid smoking. Smoking damages many organs and can worsen lupus symptoms.
Drink in moderation. Alcohol may lower the effectiveness of certain medications and impact the health of your liver. Talk with your doctor about alcohol’s effect on your treatment and current health.
Get regular exercise. Engage in moderate, low-impact exercise, such as walking, swimming, Pilates or yoga. This type of exercise can help to strengthen your body without the risk of aggravating joint pain and inflammation. Exercise may also help your heart, lungs and bones, as well as your mental health if you’re dealing with anxiety or depression due to your condition.
Manage stress. Stress can trigger flare-ups of lupus symptoms. Try deep breathing, meditation or another stress management skill to help reduce or prevent symptom flare-ups.
Build a community of support. Research shows that people with lupus benefit by having an understanding support system around them. You may find that support from family, friends, support groups or an online community.
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