September 30, 2014

Increase Your Lupus Awareness

By Terry Masek, SPHR
Human Resources Officer
Metropolitan Medical Laboratory, PLC

What is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic (lifelong) autoimmune disease that causes inflammation which can damage major organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, skin and brain. The specific cause of lupus is not yet known. Lupus is not contagious. Lupus is not like or related to cancer, HIV or AIDS.

With lupus, the body’s immune system doesn’t work the way it should. A healthy immune system produces proteins called antibodies and specific cells called lymphocytes that help fight and destroy viruses, bacteria and other foreign substances that invade the body. With lupus, the immune system produces antibodies that work against the body’s healthy cells and tissues. These antibodies, called autoantibodies, contribute to the inflammation of various parts of the body and can cause damage to organs and tissues.

At least 1.5 million Americans have lupus, with 16,000 new cases being reported annually in this country. Worldwide, approximately five million people have a form of lupus. Ninety percent of those with lupus are women, with the majority of them being stricken during their childbearing years (15 – 44). Lupus is two to three times more common among African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Native Americans and Asians than Caucasians.

Lupus is characterized by periods of illness, called flares, and periods of wellness, or remission. Learning to recognize the warning signs of a flare – increased fatigue, pain, rash, fever, abdominal discomfort, headache and dizziness – can help the patient take steps to ward it off or to reduce its intensity. Flares can be triggered by infections, ultraviolet light, stress and some medications. People with lupus are at a high risk for blood clots, stroke and seizures. Approximately 40 percent will develop kidney disease and have twice the risk of developing cardiovascular disease than people without lupus.

Genetics plays an important role. If one twin has lupus, the other twin has a 24 percent chance of developing it. Genes alone, however, do not determine who gets lupus. A number of other
factors – and a wide variety of genes –all play a role.

What are the Symptoms of Lupus?

Each person with lupus has slightly different symptoms that can range from mild to severe and may come and go over time. However, some of the most common symptoms of lupus include painful or swollen joints (arthritis), muscle pain, chest pain when taking a deep breath, hair loss, unexplained fever and/or extreme fatigue. A characteristic red skin rash – the so-called butterfly rash – may appear across the nose and cheeks. Rashes may also occur on the face and ears, upper arms, shoulders, chest, hands and other areas exposed to the sun. Because many people with lupus are sensitive to the sun – called photosensitivity – skin rashes often first develop or worsen after sun exposure.

As many as 60 percent of people with lupus will experience some type of memory problem, such as a difficulty in recalling names, dates and appointments.
Diagnosing Lupus

Diagnosing lupus can be difficult, since there are many different degrees of lupus and since many of the symptoms develop gradually over time. There is no single diagnostic test. It may take months or even years for doctors to piece together the symptoms to diagnose this complex disease accurately. Making a correct diagnosis of lupus requires knowledge and awareness on the part of the doctor and good communication on the part of the patient. Providing the doctor with a complete and accurate medical history is critical to the process of diagnosis. This information, along with a physical examination and the results of laboratory tests, helps the doctor consider other diseases that may mimic lupus – or to determine whether or not you truly have the disease. Lupus has been called “the great imitator” because its symptoms are often like the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, certain blood disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid problems, Lyme disease and a number of other heart, lung, muscle, and bone diseases. Researching a diagnosis may take additional time as new symptoms appear.

Treatment for Lupus

The range and effectiveness of treatments for lupus have increased dramatically in recent decades, giving doctors more choices in how to manage this disease.

It’s important for people with lupus to receive regular health care, instead of seeking help only when symptoms worsen. Results from a medical exam and laboratory work on a regular basis allow the doctor to note any changes and to identify and treat flares early. The treatment plan, which is tailored to the individual’s specific needs and circumstances, can be adjusted accordingly. If new symptoms are identified early, treatments may be more effective. Other concerns can also be addressed at regular checkups. The doctor can provide guidance about such issues as the use of sunscreens, stress reduction and the importance of structured exercise and rest, as well as birth control and family planning. Because people with lupus can be more susceptible to infections, the doctor may recommend yearly influenza vaccinations or pneumococcal vaccinations for some patients.

Women with lupus should receive regular preventive health care, such as gynecological and breast examinations. Although pregnancy in women with lupus is considered high risk, 80% of women with inactive lupus can have successful pregnancies.

Men and women with lupus need to have their blood pressure and cholesterol checked on a regular basis and should be aware of their increased risk of premature cardiovascular disease. This makes healthy lifestyle choices such as eating well, exercising regularly and not smoking particularly important for people with lupus.

Participating in a support group can provide emotional help, boost self-esteem and morale and help develop or improve coping skills.

Even though there is no current cure for lupus, with good medical care, lupus can be effectively treated and most people with the disease can lead healthy and active lives. 80 to 90 percent of people with non-organ threatening lupus can look forward to having the same lifespan as people without lupus.

For more information on lupus and other related conditions, contact the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) Information Clearinghouse, National Institutes of Health. The website is:

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Filed Under: Health & Wellness

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