What is it?
When you hear the word lupus, what do you think of? Some people might think of dogs or wolves since their scientific name is Canis lupus. Others might think of a beloved children’s series that had a character by a similar sounding name and the capability to turn into a werewolf. No, having lupus doesn’t mean you are able to turn into a werewolf. So, what is it? How is it treated? Is there a cure?
Lupus is also called systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE. In 19th century France, a doctor thought that the facial rash of some people with lupus looked like the bite or scratch of a wolf. “Lupus” is Latin for wolf and “erythematosus” is Latin for red. So, technically it is related to wolves, but only in name. Lupus is actually an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system attacks your tissues and organs. It can affect many different parts of your body, like joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs. When an attack occurs, it causes inflammation leading to a wide variety of symptoms. Since it can present in many different ways, it is often difficult to diagnosis. The most common symptom is the facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly unfolding across your cheeks. Some other common symptoms are fatigue, fever, joint pain/swelling/stiffness, skin lesions (appear or worsen after spending time in the sun), Raynaud’s phenomenon (fingers/toes turning white/blue when exposed to cold or during periods of high stress), shortness of breath, chest pain, dry eyes, headaches, confusion and memory loss. Since lupus can affect so many different parts of your body, all sorts of possible complications can occur to any of the areas previously mentioned. It also places you at a higher risk for infections, cancer and pregnancy complications.
Each person who has lupus experiences it different from another because no two cases are alike. The symptoms you have depend on where it affects your body. It can develop suddenly or slowly, be mild or severe and temporary or permanent. Most often people have mild to no symptoms with periods where symptoms get worse for a while (flares) before getting better or disappearing again. While the exact cause of lupus is unknown, it is thought to be an inherited disorder that gets triggered by something in your environment. A possible trigger is exposure to sun light. Certain medications or having an infection are thought to prompt a lupus episode. It is important to note that if your lupus is caused by a medication, it will typically resolve once you stop taking the medication. People who are at higher risk for developing lupus are women, being between the ages of 15 – 45 and being African-American, Asian-American or Hispanic.
Lupus is treated by addressing the symptoms the individual is experiencing. The most common medication used are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) because they help with the pain, swelling and fever that accompany a flare. Another option is antimalarial medications because they affect your immune system and have been found to be helpful for lupus flares. Corticosteroids help decrease the inflammation, but because of their side effects, they are mainly used to treat serious cases of lupus that impact your kidneys or brain. The same is true for immunosuppressants because they suppress your immune system, which helps manage your symptoms, but they put you at increased risk for infections since your immune system is unable to protect you like it normally would.
Besides medication, there are several things that you can do to help decrease your chances of having a lupus flare. It is important to see your doctor on a regular basis because this will allow you to attend to any problems that could lead to a flare. By eating healthy, getting regular exercise and not smoking, your body will be healthy, therefore, less susceptible. It is essential to be careful when you are in the sun since this is thought to trigger flares. So, wear sunscreen (at least SPF 55) and protective clothing (pants, long-sleeve shirt and hat) every time you go outside. Be sure to talk about how you feel regarding having lupus to a therapist, in a support group and with your family and friends.
Since the direct underlying cause of lupus is not known, it is challenging to find ways to prevent it. Obviously, living a healthy lifestyle by eating right, exercising and not smoking is a great place to start. Also, being smart when your outside to protect your skin from the sun is a good idea not only to prevent lupus, but a variety of other conditions, like skin cancer. As we learn more about the cause of lupus, there will be better guidelines as to what to do to prevent it.
Lupus is a challenging diagnosis to receive and disease to live with, but with taking the right steps to help prevent flares, it is definitely more manageable. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the Lupus Foundation of America at https://www.lupus.org/