What is Lupus?
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes pain and inflammation. When the body is affected by an autoimmune disease, it cannot differentiate between foreign entities and healthy tissue. Bodies suffering from autoimmunity create autoantibodies, due to confusion, which attack and destroy healthy tissue. Damage from lupus can occur to any part of the body, including skin, joints and/or organs. Due to the chronic nature of this disease, symptoms can last anywhere from six weeks to often many years.
Is Lupus Contagious?
Lupus is not a contagious disease. You cannot get or give someone lupus through sexual contact or saliva. In rare cases pregnant women with certain antibodies can cause temporary lupus symptoms in their fetus (see types of lupus).
Who’s at Risk?
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, more than 16,000 new cases of lupus are reported each year in the United States. The most at-risk group is women of childbearing age, and, among this category, women of color are two to three times more likely to develop lupus than their Caucasian counterparts. Men, children and teenagers have the potential to develop lupus, but the risk increases for ages 15 to 44.
- Hormones: Researchers have begun to study the affect hormones play in lupus and estrogen, in particular, due to the substantial risk women have of to the disease compared with Both men and women produce estrogen, but the amount is much greater in women. The severity of lupus symptoms for women increases at times when they are creating high amounts of estrogen (menstruation/pregnancy), lending evidence to a potential link. Research is ongoing.
- Genetics: According to the Lupus Foundation of America, there is a 25 per cent chance an identical twin of someone with lupus will develop the disease, evidence for a genetic causal link. So far researchers have identified more than 50 genes associated with lupus. There is still no direct link for these genes, but they have been seen more commonly in people with lupus and scientists believe a link is possible. No family history of lupus is necessary to develop the disease, but people who suffer from an autoimmune disease are at a higher risk.
- Environment: Research has shown that an environmental agent, such as a virus or chemical, could be a trigger for someone who is genetically susceptible to lupus. Certain environmental triggers have been shown to produce flares for example, ultraviolet light (UVA and UVB), infections and silica dust.
- According to the Lupus Foundation of America, it is estimated at least 1.5 million Americans have lupus.
- An estimated 5 million people worldwide have some form of lupus.
- An estimated $20,000 is spent in annual costs for each lupus patient in healthcare and for loss of productivity.
- One in three lupus patients suffers from multiple autoimmune diseases.
Diagnosing lupus can be challenging. Symptoms can imitate many other illnesses and can come and go, even changing their form. The Lupus Foundation of America reports it takes, on average, six years for people with lupus to be diagnosed, with 63 per cent of lupus patients surveyed stating they were incorrectly diagnosed. Symptoms for lupus include:
- Skin rashes.
- Pain or swelling of the joints.
- Hair loss.
- Trouble breathing.
- Memory problems.
Other symptoms include sensitivity to the sun, oral ulcers, arthritis, kidney problems, seizures, lung problems, dry eyes and mouth or heart problems. Some lupus patients experience symptoms in “flares”, meaning they occur only occasionally or even years apart. Every individual will experience their own variation or intensity of symptoms. There are differences in the ways symptoms manifest between men and women, such as women might experience vaginal dryness as a side effect.
Types of Lupus
- Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: This is the most common type of lupus, making up 70 per cent of all reported cases. Systemic lupus can affect joints, skin, brain, lungs, kidneys and blood vessels. The inflammation throughout the body can cause major tissue damage in affected organs.
- Cutaneous Lupus: This classification is less common and makes up 10 per cent of all cases. Cutaneous lupus solely affects the skin, causing rashes or lesions (usually when exposed to sunlight).
- Drug-induced Lupus: Another less common form of lupus, occurring in about 10 per cent of lupus patients, these outbreaks are caused by certain medications. In most cases, symptoms will subside after cutting off the medication.
- Neonatal Lupus: A rare form of this autoimmune disease, antibodies in the mother’s body cause effects in the fetus such as skin rash, low blood cell count or liver problems. The effects of neonatal lupus are temporary, and usually disappear after six months. Talk to your doctor about risks and precautions if you have lupus and are planning pregnancy or are already pregnant. Neonatal lupus has no long-lasting effects.
This illness can range from mild to life-threatening, so early diagnosis and treatment is important. Unfortunately there is no cure. Symptoms can be managed through medication and lifestyle choices. It is important to consult regularly with your doctor to make sure your treatment is working. Ninety per cent of people diagnosed with lupus can expect to live a normal life if they follow their treatment plan closely. Medications prescribed to manage lupus include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.
- Immunosuppressive agents/chemotherapy.
Lifestyle changes are a key component to any treatment plan. The Arthritis Foundation recommends:
- A balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, foods high in omega 3 (fish), low -fat dairy, and lean protein.
- Physical exercise.
- Rest and don’t overexert.