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Living With Lupus: Can You Recognize The Signs?

Medically reviewed on Aug 13, 2018 by L. Anderson, PharmD.

What Exactly is Lupus?

Lupus can result in an attack on many body systems, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and brain. Lupus, also known scientifically as Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), often results in symptoms of:

  • mouth sores
  • rash, fatigue
  • joint pain and swelling
  • kidney damage.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, a condition that occurs when the body mistakes its own tissue as foreign and attacks itself.

The cause of lupus is not fully known, and in severe cases, lupus can be fatal. Research data suggests that in people with lupus, some of the immune system's "B cells" mature the wrong way – so that they promote inflammation instead of fighting it.

Who Gets Lupus?

In the U.S., roughly 1.5 million people are affected by lupus according to the Lupus Foundation of America, and more than 16,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.

Women get lupus 10 times more frequently than men, and the average age of onset is 15 to 44 years. But men, children, and teens can develop lupus, also.

Race can play a role, too.

  • African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women are more prone to lupus than caucasian women.
  • While anyone is subject to lupus, African-American women are 3 times more prone than white, non-Hispanic women, and it can be more serious in these women.

What Causes Lupus?

Researchers have not pinpointed the exact cause of lupus. Since it occurs so frequently in women of child-bearing age, some scientists believe hormones may be involved.

Genetics may play a role, too, as those who develop lupus may inherit the risk from one or both parents. Lupus then develops when the person is exposed to an autoimmune trigger, like an infection, being pregnant, sunlight exposure, or after surgery.

Lupus can also be triggered by certain types of anti-seizure medications, blood pressure medications and antibiotics, which may be reversible when the medication is stopped.

The Symptoms of Lupus Can Vary

Lupus symptoms can be difficult to control and flare-up over time.

  • Inflammation and damage to organ systems, especially the kidneys, can be severe.
  • Fatigue, fever and weight loss or weight gain can occur commonly, and the fatigue can be debilitating for a patient, zapping all of their energy.
  • Weight loss may be due to lack of appetite; on the flipside, weight gain may be due to fluid retention and a boosted appetite due to corticosteroid use.
  • Joint pain and stiffness, primarily the fingers, wrist, and knees, are early signs of lupus.
  • A "butterfly rash", a redness on the nose and cheeks following sunlight exposure, is a telltale sign of lupus.
  • Mouth sores, dry eyes and hair loss can occur, too.

How to Diagnose Lupus: It's Not So Cut and Dry

The diagnosis of lupus is not always straightforward. Signs and symptoms can vary from person to person, and one test cannot diagnose lupus.

Your specific signs and symptoms, certain blood and urine tests, and a physical exam by your doctor will help to make the diagnosis.

Tests may include:

How to Treat Lupus: Older Stand-Bys

While great advances are being made in lupus, there is no cure yet. Treatments act to limit symptoms, prevent end-organ damage, and lower the risk of recurrence.

Common drugs used to treat lupus include:

Newer Lupus Treatment: Benlysta

Older medicines may work well for lupus but tend to suppress the whole immune system which can lead to elevated risk for infections and troublesome side effects.

In 2011, the FDA approved the first lupus treatment since 1955 -- Benlysta (belimumab).

The most common side effects include nausea, diarrhea, and fever. Patients also commonly experienced infusion reactions, so pre-treatment with an antihistamine may be needed. Benlysta is not for severe kidney problems caused by lupus, or lupus that affects the central nervous system (brain, nerves, and spinal cord). Learn more about Lupus treatment here.

How to Cope With Lupus

Lupus has no cure, but you can learn to control this condition. A more healthy lifestyle can help to control symptoms.

  • First, don't push yourself too hard each day at work or at home, and take a break when needed.
  • To reduce stress, exercise, gather with friends, and relax.
  • Seek out lupus support groups that can be a sounding board for concerns and questions of your lupus.
  • Avoid sunlight, use sunscreens, and wear protective clothing — such as a hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants — every time you go outside.
  • Finally, educate yourself on the latest lupus news to be better prepared for future healthcare decisions.

Finished: Living With Lupus: Can You Recognize The Signs?

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Sources

  • GSK Receives FDA Approval for a New Self-Injectable Formulation of Benlysta (belimumab) for Systemic Lupus Erythematosus. July 21, 2017. Accessed August 13, 2018 at https://www.drugs.com/newdrugs/gsk-receives-fda-approval-new-self-injectable-formulation-benlysta-belimumab-systemic-lupus-4563.html
  • Lupus Foundation of America. What is Lupus? Accessed August 13, 2018 at http://www.lupus.org/answers/entry/what-is-lupus.
  • Lupus. Mayo Clinic Reference. Drugs.com. Accessed August 13, 2018 at https://www.drugs.com/mcd/lupus.
  • Fast Facts About Lupus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). Accessed August 13, 2018 at http://www.niams.nih.gov/health_info/lupus/lupus_ff.asp
  • Up to Date: Patient information: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (Beyond the Basics). Up To Date. Accessed August 13, 2018 at https://www.uptodate.com/contents/systemic-lupus-erythematosus-sle-beyond-the-basics

Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.

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