Lupus is an inflammatory disease that affects nearly 5 million people worldwide. Many know this disease by name, but cannot explain what it really is.
Definition: What is Lupus?
Lupus - also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - is a chronic autoimmune disease. That is, the body's immune system begins to attack the cells of the body. Lupus is one of the most common autoimmune diseases. It can affect all parts of the body, including the skin, kidneys, heart, and joints. This is why it's referred to as "disseminated" or "systemic".
The appearance of this disease is unpredictable and usually lasts a lifetime. It typically affects women of childbearing age (18 to 40 years old). That said, it can also affect younger or older women, as well as men. The ratio is 12 women to 1 man, in people aged 15 to 40 years old.
Lupus is characterized by alternating periods of relapses and remission. During these outbreaks, symptoms worsen, and blood tests will reveal the presence of abnormal antibodies attacking the body. Two outbreaks can be separated by anything from two days or two years, depending on the individual.
Symptoms of Lupus
Lupus can have several degrees of severity. In general, the symptoms are highly variable and appear only once the disease is well-developed. Symptoms include:
- joint pain, swelling, chronic redness (most often in the fingers and feet)
- rashes, especially along the nose and cheeks, known as "butterly erythema"
- flare-ups of fever
- weight loss
- coughing and breathing problems
- increased sensitivity to UV rays
- vision problems
- chest pain
- chronic and unexplained fatigue
- muscle pain
- disorderly thoughts and confusion
- emotional issues (changing or uncontrollable emotions, or mood swings)
Symptoms are numerous and make the diagnosis of lupus very complicated. Therefore, from the first onset of any suspicious symptoms, it is important to consult a doctor who can confirm the diagnosis of lupus.
If left untreated, lupus can lead to complications such as inflammation. This can affect other parts of the body, such as the kidneys, central nervous system, and heart. Most complications usually occur a few years after the initial diagnosis.
Causes of Lupus
The causes of lupus are still unclear. However, it is generally accepted that lupus is caused by alterations of the immune system. In general, the function of the immune system is to combat viruses and bacteria that are considered as foreign organisms. In the case of lupus, however, the system begins to consider the body's own components as foreign, and will begin to attack the tissues.
The origin of this disease remains unknown, but several factors are being considered as potential causes. Research suggests a genetic aspect in particular. Other triggers include infections with certain viruses, exposure to the sun (UV rays), stress caused by illness, pregnancy, and certain medications.
The fact that the disease affects women more than men has led researchers to speculate that estrogen may play a role in the development of lupus. That said, this theory has not been verified yet.
Diagnosis of Lupus
The diagnosis of the disease is made by looking for a particular type of antibody in the patient's blood. Nevertheless, this test is not sufficient, and must be completed through an analysis of the person's medical history, as well as a thorough clinical examination.
Treatment of Lupus
Lupus has become more manageable in recent recent years thanks to several drug treatments. However, these are not curative. Anti-inflammatories - especially corticosteroids such as prednisone and methylprednisone - are effective in treating the effects of the disease when it affects several organs.
If lupus reaches the kidneys or nervous system, immunosuppressants are prescribed in order to chemically suppress the effects of the immune system. All of these medications are effective in the treatment of lupus, but some have significant side effects. This is why it's important to have regular follow-ups with a specialist.