Are you really tired all the time? Do you have frequent headaches? Are your joints swollen and painful? It may not be the flu or a similar illness. You may have lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease that causes systemic inflammation that affects multiple organs, especially the skin and joints. Lupus can also affect other organs in your body such as your kidneys, the tissue lining your lungs (pleura), your heart (pericardium) and your brain.
In many of our Westchester Health patients with lupus, they find that the disease’s symptoms fluctuate from mild to serious. They have times when the disease is active, followed by times when it is mostly quiet (remission).
It is estimated that at least 1.5 million Americans have lupus, and 5 million people throughout the world have some form of it. Fortunately, there is some good news for people with lupus. Improvements in treatment have greatly improved their quality of life and increased their lifespan.
Important facts about lupus you should know
- Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot “catch” lupus from someone or “give” lupus to someone.
- Lupus is not related to cancer. Cancer occurs when malignant, abnormal tissues grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues. Lupus is an autoimmune disease. However, some treatments for lupus may include immunosuppressant drugs that are also used in chemotherapy.
- Lupus is not related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS, the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.
- Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening and should always be treated. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life.
- Lupus strikes mostly women of childbearing age. In fact, lupus occurs 10 times more often in women than in men. However, men, children and teenagers can develop lupus, too.
- Most people with lupus develop the disease between the ages of 15-44.
- Women of color are 2-3 times more likely to develop lupus than Caucasians.
- People of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus.
- Treatment depends on the organs involved.
- Involvement of the kidneys or/and the brain is the most serious manifestation of lupus.
- People can live full lives with lupus if they actively take steps to manage it.
- Sun exposure can lead to lupus flare-ups.
19 symptoms that might signal you have lupus
Lupus is sometimes called “the great imitator” because its symptoms are similar to symptoms of other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid problems, Lyme disease, and a number of heart, lung, muscle and bone diseases.
Symptoms to watch for include:
- Butterfly-shaped rash across cheeks and nose
- Raised red patches on your skin
- Extreme fatigue (tiredness)
- Painful or swollen joints
- Swelling (edema) in feet, legs, hands and/or around eyes
- Pain in chest when deep breathing (pleurisy)
- Hair loss
- Abnormal blood clotting
- Fingers turning white and/or blue when cold (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
- Sensitivity to light
- Ulcers in your mouth or nose
- Inflammation in the lining of your heart or lungs
- Seizures or other nerve problems
- Too much protein in your urine
- Low blood cell counts
- Certain antibodies in your blood
- Results from a blood test called an ANA test that suggest you may have too many “antinuclear” antibodies, which could be a sign of lupus
What causes lupus?
Researchers believe that lupus develops in response to a combination of factors both inside and outside the body, including hormones, genetics and environment.
Because 9 out of every 10 occurrences of lupus are in females, scientists have looked at the relationship between estrogen and lupus. While men and women both produce estrogen, its production is much greater in females. Many women with lupus have more symptoms before menstrual periods and/or during pregnancy when estrogen production is high. This may indicate that estrogen somehow regulates the severity of lupus. However, no causal effect has been proven between estrogen, or any other hormone, and lupus. And, studies of women with lupus taking estrogen in either birth control pills or as postmenopausal therapy have shown no increase in significant activity of the disease. Therefore, researchers are now focusing on other differences between men and women (beyond hormone levels) which might explain why women are more prone to lupus and other autoimmune diseases.
More than 50 genes have now been associated with lupus; however, genes do not entirely account for the development of this disease. For example, when twins are raised in the same environment and have the same genetic makeup, sometimes only one twin develops lupus. However, when twins are identical and one of them has lupus, there is an increased chance that the other twin will also develop the disease (30% for identical twins vs. 5-10% for fraternal twins).
Also, certain ethnic groups (African, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Island descent) have a greater risk of developing lupus, which may point to a genetic cause.
Many researchers believe that an environmental agent such as a virus or chemical that is encountered by a genetically susceptible individual can trigger lupus. The most commonly cited triggers are:
- Ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB)
- Infections (including Epstein-Barr virus)
- Exposure to silica dust in agricultural or industrial settings
- Fluorescent light bulbs
- Sulfa or tetracycline drugs which make a person more sensitive to the sun
- Penicillin or other antibiotic drugs
- Infection, colds or viral illnesses
- Emotional stress such as divorce, illness, death in the family or other serious events
- Experiences that causes stress to the body such as surgery, physical harm, injury, pregnancy or giving birth
Can anything be done to slow or prevent the development of lupus?
Early diagnosis of lupus, as well as avoiding the factors that can trigger its symptoms, can help you manage this disease. Medications can also effectively slow its progress and lessen your particular symptoms. For more answers, we recommend that you see a rheumatologist who is specially trained in the treatment of lupus.
To learn more, here are some helpful websites
Worried that you have lupus or are at risk of developing it? Come see us.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of lupus and want to know your treatment options, or want more information about this disease, please make an appointment with Westchester Health to see one of our rheumatologists. We’ll examine you, evaluate your symptoms, perhaps perform some tests, then recommend the best course of treatment to hopefully reverse, or at least slow down, this chronic disease so you can lead a healthy, active life. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.