What Is Lupus?

September 15, 2011

Medical TV shows have made lupus out to be a scary disease, one that can’t be diagnosed until symptoms are deadly, and that symptoms occur rapidly. Of course, this is all dramatization, and most people with lupus lead a more or less normal life.

So, What Is Lupus?

Lupus is Latin for wolf, and is so named for how it can affect the skin. At least 1.5 million people in the US have lupus.

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system causes excess inflammation. It’s a chronic condition, and symptoms come in flares that can be triggered by different things. As yet there’s no cure, although medical advancements in treatment for lupus are currently occurring very quickly.

Although lupus is genetic, there’s no known gene tied to it. Anyone with a family member with an autoimmune disorder is at a (slightly) increased risk for lupus. Women are disproportionately affected (with onset usually during childbearing years), and in the US women of color tend to be even more affected, with symptoms that are more severe and begin earlier in life.

There are four types of Lupus:

Neonatal Lupus: Lupus is often triggered by pregnancy or giving birth. Mothers with lupus will sometimes have antibodies that attack the fetus; after birth the symptoms usually resolve with only an increased risk for heart problems.

Drug Induced Lupus Erythematosus: Occurs mostly in men, induced lupus occurs when certain prescription drugs trigger the disease in already at risk individuals.

Cutaneous Lupus affects the skin, causing rashes and discoloration (and occasionally hair loss). A small percentage develop (or already have) systemic lupus.

Systemic Lupus: Meaning body wide, this is the most common type of lupus. It can affect any organ, but most often affects the kidneys, brain/nervous system, heart/vascular system, skin, as well as the joints.

So What Are Symptoms For Lupus?

Inflammation is a common part of many diseases, which is why diagnosing lupus is so difficult.  Symptoms can also vary, as different lupus flares can affect different organs.
In any case, symptoms for lupus include:

Swelling (especially in joints)
fever, extreme fatigue, headaches
Anemia, weird blood clotting or poor circulation
Chest pain/poor breathing (see a doctor!)

If you are worried you have lupus, www.lupus.org has a symptoms checker.

What Triggers Symptoms For Lupus?

Another symptom for lupus is photo-sensitivity (sensitivity to light), and this is also a common trigger for other symptoms. Both sunlight and fluorescent lightbulbs can be a source, so stick to regular incandescent or the new LEDs. It’s also important to try to avoid anything that can increase photo-sensitivity, including diuretics, which includes caffeine.

Other people report triggers from medications like antibiotics as well as many commonly prescribed heart meds (hence men suffering from drug induced lupus). For some this trigger might only cause temporary lupus, for others it could trigger the beginning of the disease.

Stress can be a major trigger of symptoms for lupus. Whether the stress is emotional (major life changes) or physical (trauma, infection, surgery, etc.) stress can trigger lupus flares.

People rarely die from lupus; when they do it’s usually from an overwhelming infection or kidney failure. New research suggests that heart inflammation caused by lupus may be contributing to increased heart disease and death in lupus patients. Seeing a doctor regularly, reporting all new symptoms, and taking preventative steps (like avoiding triggers & infection) can help people with lupus lead a full, normal life.

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