Lupus, short for systemic lupus erythematosus, is a chronic autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system can’t properly distinguish between its own cells and harmful substances. The immune system indistinguishably attacks otherwise healthy cells, leading to inflammation and damage to various body tissues.
A conservative estimate produced by the National Arthritis Data Workgroup counts the number of lupus patients in the United States anywhere from 322,000 to over a million people. The exact number is hard to caluclate since lupus is a complex disease that can present a wide range of symptoms and no two cases are exactly alike. About nine out of 10 people who have lupus are women and the disease is two to four times more common and severe among nonwhite populations around the world, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Lupus is characterized by periods of illness, known as “flares,” and periods of remission, according to the National Institute of Arthritis and Muscoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Symptoms usually consist of painful or swollen joints (arthritis), extreme fatigue, unexplained fever, skin rashes and kidney problems, though they can vary greatly from person to person. About half of people with lupus will experience skin rashes, specifically “butterfly” rashes that span the cheeks and the bridge of the nose, or they can further spread to other body parts, according to the National Institutes of Health. Other symptoms, which depend on how widespread the disease is within the body, may include mild cognitive impairment, fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods (Raynaud’s phenomenon), chest pain, hair loss, personality change, seizures and vision problems.
Diagnosis & Tests
No single test can affirmatively determine whether a person has lupus, but several laboratory tests may help the doctor confirm the diagnosis or rule out other possible causes, according to the NIAMS. The most common lab test detects autoantibodies thatare often present in the blood of people with lupus, but this would only be one out of a series of tests. The diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus is based on the presence of at least four out of 11 typical characteristics of the disease. These tests include autoantibody tests, kidney biopsies, chest X-rays and urinanalyses. X-rays and other imaging tests can help doctor gauge the effects of the disease on different organs and tissues, according to the NIAMS.
Treatments & Medications
There is currently no cure for lupus. However, medication can help manage and relieve the symptoms. Doctors determine treatment depending on which organs are affected and how active the flares are. Three types of drugs are commonly used to treat the symptoms of lupus: nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin, naproxen sodium (Aleve) and ibuprofen, corticosteroids to counteract swelling, and antimalarial drugs such as hydroxychloroquine (trade name Plaquenil), according to the Mayo Clinic.
For more severe cases, where the kidneys or the central nervous systems are also affected by lupus, more aggressive treatment may be needed. Immunosuppressive drugs such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) and azathioprine (Imuran, Azasan), may be prescribed to restrain overreactive immune systems, according to the NIAMS.
Despite the symptoms and potential side effects of the treatment, people with lupus can usually maintain a high quality of life, according to the NIAMS. Patients can make their lives easier by understanding the disease and learning to recognize the warning signs of a flare, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Because of the nature and the cost of the medication, patients might supplement their regular medication with alternate therapies such as special diets, nutritional supplements, chiropractic treatments and homeotherapy. However, no research to date shows that they conclusively alter disease process or prevent organ damage, according to the NIAMS.