May is National Lupus Awareness Month, calling attention to an autoimmune disease that affects nearly 5 million individuals worldwide. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system attacks healthy tissue within the body. In the case of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the immune system attacks many different types of tissue, causing inflammation and tissue damage throughout the body.
What is Lupus?
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common type of lupus, and can cause damage to the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, and blood vessels among other tissues. When tissues or organs in the body are damaged by inflammation, complications can arise. These complications can include damage to vital organs such as the kidneys, brain, nervous system, lungs, and heart. Symptoms of SLE include fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and fever. These symptoms are usually present for short periods of time, flares, then disappear for periods of time, remissions.
It is not well understood what exactly causes SLE, but genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors are likely involved in the development of the condition. Lupus can be a difficult condition to diagnose, because there is not a specific test that can identify the disease. Instead, healthcare professionals may need to use information from your medical history, blood tests, and skin or kidney biopsies to reach a diagnosis. Women are 6 times more likely than men to be diagnosed with SLE. Additionally, African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American women, as well as individuals with a family history of SLE are more likely to be diagnosed.
How does Lupus impact daily life?
Lupus is a chronic condition, meaning once you have been diagnosed you will have the condition for life. Typically, lupus is treated with a combination of medications which may need to be adjusted over time. This requires you and your physician to continually work together to monitor your symptoms and modify your medication regimen as needed. Different symptoms may require you to see different health care specialists. For example, skin rashes related to lupus may be best treated by a dermatologist, while joint swelling related to lupus may best be treated by a rheumatologist. These specialists will work together to help control symptom flare ups and reduce tissue damage when flare ups do occur.
A lupus diagnosis may also require some lifestyle changes in order to decrease the severity of symptoms. Research suggests eating healthy and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent lupus complications such as cardiovascular disease. In this way, a lifestyle change to a heart-healthy diet of reduced sodium and increased exercise may be beneficial for some patients. Other short-term changes may be helpful in reducing the severity of lupus symptoms. For example, if you suffer from extreme fatigue during lupus flare ups, you may need to reduce physical activity for that period of time.
What is being done to improve the lives of people with Lupus?
In the past, individuals diagnosed with lupus were predicted to have a shortened lifespan. Due to improved treatment methods, this is no longer the case. Today, over 80% of individuals diagnosed with lupus are expected to live a normal lifespan. The ability to effectively treat lupus flare ups reduces the amount of damage to vital organs caused by inflammation and the development of other disabilities caused by disease progression.
Many organizations are performing research to better understand the cause of lupus and how it damages tissues within the body. Recent research by the Lupus Research Institute has identified certain genes that may increase an individual’s risk for developing the condition. Additional efforts are being directed towards identifying biological markers that can be found in individuals who have lupus, in hopes to develop a laboratory test that can more efficiently diagnose the condition. Findings from further research will help healthcare professionals diagnose and begin treatment for lupus before it causes significant damage to organs such as the kidneys and heart.