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What is Lupus? Learn About Lupus Flares, Symptoms, and Treatment

What is Lupus? Learn About Lupus Flares, Symptoms, and Treatment

What is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks your own healthy and normal tissues and organs. This can also cause inflammation and pain that can affect different parts of the body including the skin, kidneys, joints, lungs, brain, blood cells, and the heart.

The inflammation caused does not directly affect the heart, but it can speed up the emergence of blood clots. For patients who have had lupus for more than five years, cardiovascular disease is the primary cause of death.

Causes

In most cases, the cause of of this disease is unknown, but some doctors believe that a combination of genetics and environment may result in lupus.

Certain environmental conditions may trigger the disease in people who are already genetically predisposed to lupus. These conditions include:

  • Sunlight. People who are susceptible to the disease may experience skin lesions or other internal responses if they are exposed to the sun often.
  • Infection. Infections can trigger flare ups or cause relapses.
  • Medications. There are cases where flares are triggered by certain types of medications for blood pressure, as well as anti-seizure medicines and antibiotics. Patients get better after discontinuing the triggering medication.

Signs and Symptoms

Patients may experience a wide variety of symptoms. Symptoms may develop slowly or quickly, and may be mild or severe. Symptoms may be temporary or permanent. Some patients experience flares or episodes, where lupus symptoms can get worse for a while, and then disappear for a period of time.

Symptoms depend on the affected area or body system. The common signs and symptoms are:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling, joint pain, and stiffness
  • Skin lesions triggered by sun exposure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Headaches and memory loss
  • Dry eyes and chest pains
  • Exposure to cold temperature or stress can cause the fingers and toes to turn white
  • Rashes on the body, most commonly, a butterfly-shaped rash covering the bridge of the nose and cheeks.

Lupus is hard to detect and diagnose because symptoms may mimic other illnesses. It is best to consult your doctor when you experience an unexplained and persistent rash, fever, fatigue or body aches.

Risk Factors and Complications

You are likely to develop lupus because of these risk factors:

  • Your gender. The condition is more common in women.
  • Age. The condition is commonly diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45, but can still affect people at any age.
  • Your race. African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic people are more prone to the disease.

Lupus can cause complications that can affect various areas of your body, including:

  • Blood and blood vessels. Lupus can cause inflammation of the blood vessels. This can lead to blood problems like anemia, blood clotting or bleeding.
  • Heart. Lupus can increase the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease. It can also cause inflammation of the arteries, heart muscle or membrane.
  • Lungs. Inflammation in the chest cavity can increase chances of catching pneumonia.
  • Kidneys. Lupus can cause kidney damage, and sometimes leads to kidney failure which is the primary cause of death among patients with lupus.
  • Brain and central nervous system. Headaches, confusion, memory loss, vision problems or even strokes may be experienced when the brain is affected.

Lupus also increases the risk of:

  • Infection. Lupus treatment may weaken the immune system, making the patient more vulnerable to infections.
  • Pregnancy complications. Pregnant women with the condition have a higher risk of miscarriage. It is recommended to delay pregnancy until the disease is controlled and treated.
  • Cancer. There is an increased risk of cancer.
  • Bone tissue death. The bones may collapse because of the decline of blood supply caused by some complications.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Symptoms greatly resemble symptoms from other diseases , making it hard to detect and diagnose. Multiple tests and physical examinations can lead to lupus diagnosis which includes:

Laboratory Tests

A series of laboratory examinations are done for diagnosis including:

  • Complete blood count
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (tests red blood cells sedimentation)
  • Kidney and liver assessment
  • Urinalysis
  • Antinuclear antibody or ANA test (this tests the antibodies produced by the immune system)

Imaging Tests

If there is possible lung or heart damage, your doctor will suggest the following tests:

  • Chest X-ray
  • Echocardiogram

Biopsy

In some cases, a small sample of kidney tissue is obtained to help determine the best treatment for lupus affecting the kidneys. A skin biopsy may also be performed to confirm if lupus is affecting the skin.

Treatment

There are different methods of treatment for lupus depending on your signs and symptoms. Lupus flares and symptoms may come on suddenly and severely and then subside over the course of your medication. Your doctor will have to keep up with these changes and adjust medications and dosage.

The most common medication used to control lupus include:

  • Antimalarial drugs. Medications for malaria often helps in decreasing lupus flares. Side effects may include upset stomach or in rare cases, damage to the retina of the eye.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These may treat swelling, pain, and fever caused by lupus.
  • Immunosuppressants. In serious cases, medication that suppresses the immune system is prescribed. Side effects may include decreased fertility, infection, liver damage, and increased risk of cancer.
  • Biologics. This helps reduce symptoms. Side effects may include diarrhea, infections, and nausea. Worsening of depression may also occur.
  • Corticosteroids. This medication helps counter the inflammation of lupus.

If you are diagnosed with lupus, it is important to take extra precautions to prevent lupus flares and to stay away from things that could trigger the symptoms. You should:

  • Have regular check-ups
  • Avoid sun exposure as much as possible
  • Exercise daily
  • Do not smoke
  • Follow dietary restrictions and eat healthy food
  • Take prescribed vitamins and supplements

Key takeaway

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease wherein the body’s immune system attacks otherwise healthy and normal tissues. It is a painful disease that may lead to many complications. It greatly affects not only your body, but also your mental and emotional health.

Learning and researching about your condition can help you fully understand the disease and it may help you cope more effectively. You can also connect with other people who have lupus through support groups or online message boards.

Learn more about General Health Knowledge here.

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Sources

Lupus facts and statistics | Lupus Foundation of America, https://www.lupus.org/resources/lupus-facts-and-statistics

Accessed April 20, 2021

Lupus, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/lupus/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20365790

Accessed April 21, 2021

Diagnosing and Treating Lupus | CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/lupus/basics/diagnosing.htm

Accessed April 21, 2021

Lupus (SLE) | Causes, symptoms, treatment | Versus Arthritis, https://www.versusarthritis.org/about-arthritis/conditions/lupus-sle/

Accessed April 21, 2021

What is a lupus flare?, https://www.lupus.org/resources/what-is-a-flare

Accessed May 7, 2021

 

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Written by Lhay Ann Boctoy Updated Jun 25
Medically reviewed by John Paul Ferolino Abrina, M.D.
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