The immune system normally fights off dangerous infections and bacteria to keep the body healthy. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks the body because it mistakes it for something strange. There are many autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
The term lupus has been used to identify a number of immune diseases that have similar clinical presentations and laboratory characteristics, but SLE is the most common type of lupus. People often refer to SLE when they say lupus.
SLE is a chronic disease that can have phases of worsening symptoms that alternate with periods of mild symptoms. Most people with SLE can live a normal life with treatment.
According to the Lupus Foundation of America, at least 1.5 million Americans live with diagnosed lupus. The foundation believes that the number of people who actually have the condition is much higher and that many cases go undiagnosed.
Symptoms can vary and can change over time. Common symptoms include:
- severe fatigue
- joint pain
- joint inflammation
- a rash on the cheeks and nose, called a “butterfly rash”
- Hair loss
- blood clotting problems
- fingers that turn white or blue and quiver when cold, known as Raynaud’s phenomenon
Other symptoms depend on the part of the body that attacks the disease, such as the digestive tract, the heart, or the skin.
Lupus symptoms are also symptoms of many other diseases, making diagnosis difficult. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. Your doctor may perform tests to gather the information necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
The exact cause of SLE is not known, but several factors have been associated with the disease.
The disease is not related to a certain gene, but people with lupus often have family members with other autoimmune conditions.
Environmental triggers can include:
- ultraviolet rays
- certain medications
- physical or emotional stress
Sex and hormones
SLE affects women more than men. Women may also experience more severe symptoms during pregnancy and with their menstrual periods. Both observations have led some medical professionals to believe that the female hormone estrogen may play a role in causing SLE. However, more research is still needed to test this theory.
Your doctor will perform a physical exam to check for typical lupus signs and symptoms, including:
- sun sensitivity rashes, such as butterfly or malar rash
- Ulcers on the mucous membrane, which can occur in the mouth or nose.
- Arthritis, which is swelling or tenderness of the small joints of the hands, feet, knees, and wrists.
- Hair loss
- thinning hair
- signs of cardiac or pulmonary compromise, such as heart murmurs, strokes, or strokes
No single test is diagnostic for SLE, but screening tests that can help your doctor reach an informed diagnosis include:
- Blood tests, such as antibody tests and a complete blood count
- a urinalysis
- a chest x-ray
Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist, who is a doctor who specializes in treating joint and soft tissue disorders and autoimmune diseases.
There is no cure for SLE. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms. Treatment may vary depending on the severity of symptoms and the parts of the body that affect SLE. Treatments may include:
- anti-inflammatory medications for joint pain and stiffness, such as these options available online
- steroid creams for rashes
- Corticosteroids to minimize the immune response.
- Antimalarial drugs for skin and joint problems.
- Disease modifying drugs or targeted immune system agents for more severe cases.
Talk to your doctor about your diet and lifestyle habits. Your doctor may recommend eating or avoiding certain foods and minimizing stress to reduce the chance of triggering symptoms. You may need to have osteoporosis screenings, as steroids can thin your bones. Your doctor may also recommend preventive care, such as immunizations that are safe for people with autoimmune diseases and cardiac screenings.
Over time, SLE can damage or cause complications to systems throughout the body. Possible complications may include:
- Blood clots and inflammation of the blood vessels or vasculitis.
- Inflammation of the heart, or pericarditis.
- a heart attack
- a hit
- memory changes
- behavioral changes
- Inflammation of the lung tissue and lining of the lung, or pleurisy
- inflammation of the kidney
- decreased kidney function
- renal insufficiency
SLE can have serious negative effects on your body during pregnancy. It can lead to pregnancy complications and even miscarriage. Talk to your doctor about ways to reduce the risk of complications.
SLE affects people differently. Treatments are most effective when you start them shortly after symptoms develop and when your doctor adjusts them for you. It is important to make an appointment with your doctor if you develop any symptoms that concern you.
Living with a chronic condition can be difficult. Talk to your doctor about support groups in your area. Working with a trained counselor or support group can help you reduce stress, maintain positive mental health, and manage your illness.