About 1.5 million Americans have lupus, with 16,000 cases diagnosed each year. Approximately 5 million people worldwide have a form of lupus. There is very little public awareness about lupus; in fact, the only thing many people know about the disease is that singer/actress Selena Gomez announced she has the disease and has recently underwent a kidney transplant due to her Lupus.
"It can be difficult to make the diagnosis of lupus, as it is a very heterogeneous illness and can present differently from one patient to the next," says Sanjay Chabra, DO, Director of Rheumatology at St. Jude Heritage Medical Group in Fullerton.
Dr. Chabra explains lupus in more detail:
1. Lupus is an autoimmune disease. "This means that the immune system doesn't function properly--instead of fighting off bacteria, germs or other harmful things, as with a healthy person, the immune system will also cause injury to normal tissues in the body," Dr. Chabra says. "This triggers inflammation and pain that can happen just about anywhere in the body--skin, joints, and organs. There's no known cure for lupus at this time."
2. Women should be more wary of lupus than men. Anyone can get lupus, but 90 percent of lupus patients are women, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. The disease usually presents itself between the ages of 15 and 44.
3. Lupus is called the "great imitator." "That's because several of its symptoms--fatigue, headaches, anemia, and pain in the chest, joints or muscles--can also mimic many other health conditions," Dr. Chabra says. "And when you also consider that lupus affects people in different ways--one person may experience severe joint pain, another gets a rash on the cheeks, while more serious cases can have inflammation of the brain tissue or severe kidney complications--it can be hard to make a diagnosis." Doctors usually need to take a complete medical history, order lab tests, and perform a physical exam to reach a diagnosis of lupus.
4. Hair loss is just one of the side effects. It's not unusual for lupus patients to have thinning hair, either from the disease itself or as a result of treatment. Like other chronic illnesses, anxiety and depression can be another side effect of lupus. There's also an increased risk for other health problems, such as kidney disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Many people with lupus experience a loss of energy, i.e., fatigue.
5. Lupus symptoms come and go. "People with lupus may go a long time without experiencing any problems, but then symptoms can suddenly appear in what are called flares," Dr. Chabra says. "The severity of symptoms can vary, and they can be different from what a patient has previously experienced."
5. Sun is not a lupus patient's friend. "UV rays from the sun, or even from tanning beds or bright fluorescent lights, can trigger flares, so when you're outdoors during the day, it is important to stay in the shade as much as possible or wear protective clothing and sunscreen to block rays," Dr. Chabra says. Other triggers can be emotional or physical stress, fatigue or a cold or flu.
6. Treating lupus is a team effort. Generally, a rheumatologist works with a patient's primary doctor on guiding lupus care. Other medical specialists may also be called in, depending on the symptoms. For instance, if a patient has heart problems resulting from lupus, a cardiologist would join the health care team. A nephrologist would also help if there are kidney complications. Due to the myriad of factors involved, treatment is individualized to each patient and often involves chronic medication to prevent flares or damage to the body.
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.