May is Lupus Awareness Month, and in recognition, we are sharing information on this disease and how it affects those living with it. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue. When the body attacks itself, the results are symptoms such as inflammation, swelling, and damage to joints, kidneys, blood, the heart, and lungs.
Normally, the immune system makes antibodies, which are proteins that help protect the body against antigens such as viruses and bacteria. With lupus, the immune system malfunctions and is unable to differentiate between antigens and healthy tissue, so the immune system fights foreign invaders and healthy tissue.
The body produces antibodies that fight healthy cells, called autoantibodies, which causes swelling, pain, and tissue damage in various parts of the body. Autoantibodies contribute to the inflammation of numerous parts of the body and can cause damage to organs and tissues. The autoantibodies circulate in the blood, but some cells have permeable walls that autoantibodies can get through. In lupus, antinuclear antibody (ANA) is the most common form; it invades a cell and then attacks the DNA in the cell’s nucleus.
Common symptoms of lupus include fatigue, weight loss, and a mild fever, though the severity of lupus varies tremendously between people. Here is the range of symptoms people may experience:
- Joint and muscle pain. Sometimes lupus affects only a few joints, and in other instances, it affects many. The small joints of the hands and feet are most commonly affected. Joint stiffness is common and typically occurs first thing in the morning.
- Skin and hair. Individuals with lupus commonly develop a red rash on their cheeks and nose, though it may develop on areas of the skin exposed to sunlight. In fact, 6 out of 10 people with lupus experience skin sensitivity to sunlight. Blood vessels under the skin may be affected, causing poor circulation to extremities. Patients may experience hair thinning or minor hair loss.
- Blood and lymph glands. Mild anemia is common, and other blood problems, such as a lower white blood cell count, are less common. Lymph glands may swell.
- Heart and lungs. Healthy tissue that covers the heart and lungs may become inflamed, causing pain in the side or center of the chest. Actual heart or lung tissue is not usually affected.
- About 1 in 3 people with lupus may develop inflammation of the kidneys, which does not cause problems unless it becomes very severe.
- Brain and nervous system. Mental health problems in lupus are common. This includes anxiety and depression, which could also be a reaction to having a serious illness. Occasionally, inflammation of the brain can lead to epilepsy, headaches, migraines, and other conditions.
Since lupus affects people in different ways, treatment regimens are highly customized from patient to patient. Potential treatment medications may include: NSAIDS (anti-inflammatory), anti-malarial drugs, steroids, immunosuppressive medications, and DHEA, a mild male hormone.
Treatments have greatly improved in the last two decades. Individuals who get treatment in the early stages of the disease improves long-term progress. About 85 to 95 percent of people with lupus will live for over 10 years, and many have a normal life span. Lupus that develops later in life is generally less serious than lupus that strikes in childhood or young adulthood.
As of now, researchers don’t know the exact cause of lupus. They have found that 50 genes that appear to be affected in individuals with lupus, though they know that the disease is not inherited. Researchers have also found that females have a higher likelihood of being formally diagnosed with lupus than males.
In recognition of Lupus Awareness Month, we hope that you find this information valuable. Promote awareness of lupus by sharing this article with family and friends.
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