Lupus is a systemic autoimmune disease that occurs when your body's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs. This can affect many different systems in your body: joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood cells, and even the brain. It can be difficult to diagnose due to its variety of potential affected areas and how easily the symptoms are mistaken for other conditions. For this reason, the disease is not well-known or well understood: a global survey revealed that 51% of respondents weren't aware that lupus is a disease.
The Facts and Risk Factors of Lupus
Given the general public's limited awareness of lupus, and despite what House has always insisted, it affects a surprising number of people:
- 1.5 million Americans have a form of lupus.
- The chances of a parent or sibling having or developing lupus are 20 percent.
Genetic predisposition appears to play a large part in the development of lupus, as it trends strongly along gender and racial lines:
- 90 percent of patients diagnosed with lupus are women.
- 80 percent of lupus patients develop it between 15 and 45 years of age.
- Lupus is two to three times more prevalent among people of color (particularly people of African, Hispanic, or Asian descent).
Cases of lupus appear to happen when someone with a genetic predisposition to the disease encounters something in their environment that can trigger an outbreak. These can include:
Sunlight: exposure to the sun can cause skin lesions or even an internal response.
Infections: can cause the onset of lupus or even a relapse.
Medications: drug-induced lupus can be caused by some blood pressure medications, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics, although symptoms often end when the patient stops taking the drug.
There are multiple kinds of lupus, with the most common form called Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE accounts for over 70% of lupus cases. Other forms are more directly linked to triggers, such as drug-induced lupus or subacute cutaneous lupus, in which sunlight triggers skin lesions.
Symptoms and Complications of Lupus
Lupus symptoms are wide-ranging and varied, and can be found throughout many different parts of the body:
- Joint pain or swelling
- Swelling in legs or around eyes
- Swollen glands
- Mouth ulcers
- Rashes, especially on the face (known as the "butterfly rash")
- Photosensitivity and related skin lesions
- Muscle pain
- Confusion or memory loss
- Extreme fatigue or tiredness
- Fever without identifiable cause
- Chest pain, especially while breathing deeply
- Hair loss
- Pale or purple fingers or toes
- Sensitivity to sunlight
The identifiable symptoms of lupus aren't the entire story, however. The inflammation it causes can spread to many areas of your body, which can lead to a host of complications:
Kidney damage: kidney failure is one of the leading causes of death from lupus.
Infection: both lupus and treatments can weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of infections.
Pleurisy: inflammation of the chest cavity lining.
- Bleeding into lungs.
- Anemia, bleeding, or blood clotting.
Vasculitis: inflammation of the veins.
Inflammation of the arteries, heart muscle, or heart membrane (pericarditis).
Avascular necrosis: bone tissue death, caused by diminished blood supply to a bone.
Cardiovascular disease: lupus increases the risk of this and heart attacks.
Mental difficulties: memory loss, difficulty articulating thoughts, changes in behavior.
Nervous system issues: headaches, dizziness, vision problems, strokes, or seizures.
Pregnancy complications: increased risk of miscarriage.
Diagnosing and Treating Lupus
This can be a complicated process, as there is no single test for diagnosing lupus. The process can take months or even years, as it's often mistaken for other diseases. Many tools are involved in a lupus diagnosis:
- Medical history.
- Thorough examination.
- Blood tests.
- Kidney and liver assessment.
- Skin biopsy.
- Kidney biopsy.
- Chest X-ray.
Lupus requires long-term treatment through medication and lifestyle changes, as there is no one cure for the condition. This will also likely require multiple doctors: a primary care doctor, a rheumatologist, and possibly other specialists depending on the disease's effects on specific parts of your body.
Treating lupus is centered around avoiding flareups, treating flareups, and reducing the impact they have on the body and potential complications.
Medications for lupus may include:
Topical pain relievers: topically-applied pain relief and treatment for swelling and inflammation.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS): over-the-counter pain relief and treatment for swelling and inflammation.
Antimalerial drugs: help to reduce immune activity that causes inflammation.
Immunosuppressive drugs: used to suppress immune activity in serious cases.
Corticosteroids: to counter inflammation.
Biologics: medications manufactured from complex molecules found in living microorganisms or cells.