Systemic lupus erythematosus, referred to as SLE or lupus, is a chronic (long-term) disease that causes systemic inflammation that affects multiple organs. Lupus can lead to numerous health complications and, in serious cases, can even become life-threatening. If you are a young woman, between the ages of 15 and 44 you might be most prone to it.
Like most diseases, it’s the result of both genetics and the environment. Lupus can affect different parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, brain, or kidneys are involved it can be much more serious.
But how does it affect all these organs?
Usually, the immune system protects the body’s tissues from invaders, but lupus is an autoimmune disease, which means that immune cells start attacking the very tissues they are supposed to protect, in a process called autoimmunity or “loss of self-tolerance”. As the attack goes on, all the branches of the immune system join the fight. This leads to significant and intense inflammation.
The three most common symptoms of lupus are:
- Joint pains
- Skin rashes (often in response to sunlight exposure), butterfly-shaped rash over the cheeks – referred to as malar rash, red rash with raised round or oval patches – known as discoid rash, or rash on skin exposed to the sun
- Extreme tiredness, known as fatigue. 50-90% of people with lupus identify fatigue as one of their primary symptoms.
People with lupus often have symptoms that are not specific to lupus as well. These include fever, weight loss, blood clots, and hair loss. They may also have heartburn, stomach pain, and poor circulation to the fingers and toes.
Lupus flares vary from mild to serious. Most patients have times when the disease is active, followed by times when the disease as remission. Each lupus patient will likely have their own, specific patterns of symptoms and flares. These patterns may change over time, however.
Pregnant women can have miscarriages. It can flare during pregnancy and can affect its outcome.
Lupus, especially when active, could lead to accelerated atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries) which can develop in young women and could also lead to heart attacks, heart failure, and strokes. Renal inflammation is one of the common and most serious manifestations of lupus. It could go undetected and can lead to renal failure and dialysis.
People with lupus are at increased risk of infections, such as urinary tract infections, respiratory infections, yeast infections, salmonella, herpes, and shingles, due to their weakened immune system from both the condition and its treatments. They are also at increased risk of cancer, bone tissue death, and pregnancy complications, including miscarriage and pre-eclampsia.
Diagnosis of lupus can be challenging, especially because of its wide range of symptoms that may come on slowly and change over time. The diagnosis requires a physical examination and blood tests. Often, the first clinical indication that a person has lupus is an abnormal blood test result, whether or not they are experiencing common lupus symptoms.
The symptoms usually begin in only one or two areas of the body, but more may develop over time. As experts in diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatologists can best determine whether a patient has lupus and advise them about treatment options.
There is no cure for lupus, as it is a chronic disease. The goals of treatment are to alleviate symptoms, to minimize the occurrence of flare-ups, and to minimize and address the development of complications associated with lupus. Periodic physical exams and laboratory testing are important for monitoring a person’s response to treatment as well as to detect new organ system involvement. Aggressive treatment is required for more dangerous health complications of lupus, such as renal (kidney) disease and neurological complications. It’s important to have regular check-ups and to report any new symptoms to your healthcare professionals.
Most people with lupus can live normal lives. For that, it is vital that patients with lupus, in addition to controlling their disease, exercise, minimize stress and avoid exposure to sunlight, and lower other risk factors for heart disease, such as smoking, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. If someone notices that a particular substance makes her symptoms worse, then she should avoid exposure to it as well.
Learn as much as you can about lupus, your medications, and what kind of progress to expect. Take all your medications as your doctor prescribes, and visit your Rheumatologist often to prevent serious problems.