Know The Signs: Lupus

Lupus, a chronic disease with no cure, belongs to a class of diseases that includes rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes.

Dave Yasvinski 4 minute read April 27, 2022
woman holding hand in pain from lupus

Possible risk factors for lupus include family history, stress, infections, and a history of smoking. GETTY

Systemic lupus erythematosus, the most common form of lupus, is a chronic disease in which the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue instead of actual threats to the body. These attacks can target any tissue or organ, including the skin, muscles, joints, blood, heart, lungs and brain, causing inflammation that results in a wide range of symptoms, according to Lupus Canada. The complex condition, which can affect men and women of all ages, belongs to a class of diseases that includes rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and juvenile diabetes. While there is presently no cure for lupus, the disease is not contagious and there are treatments that facilitate the long-term management of symptoms.

Symptoms of lupus

Lupus is known as “the disease with 1,000 faces” because it produces so many symptoms that almost every patient experiences it differently. Many of these symptoms are referred to as flare-ups because they appear and recede with the passage of time. The most distinctive sign of the disease, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a facial rash that resembles the wings of a butterfly spreading across a patient’s cheeks. Other symptoms include (but are not limited to): fever, extreme fatigue, joint pain, shortness of breath, chest pain, swelling of the feet or legs, hair loss, seizures, confusion, depression and sensitivity to sunlight.

Diagnosing lupus

The diversity of symptoms and the different ways they manifest makes lupus a difficult disease to diagnose. Because a large number of patients are women of child-bearing age, researchers suspect hormonal changes may be a factor. Genetics and the environment may also play a role, however, with family history, sunlight, stress, infections, medication and a history of smoking all viewed as possible causes.

Diagnosis, therefore, can be a long and painful process, with doctors typically starting the process by recording symptoms and exploring any family history of the disease. The next steps may be lab tests that search for things such as anemia, low blood cell counts and other anomalies.

These tests may be followed by other exams, including an anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) test that detects the presence of antibodies in the body that fight lupus. Although most people with the disease test positive on an ANA test, many people who do not have lupus will also return a positive result. Urine analysis, chest X-rays, echocardiograms and biopsies are other tools that may be used to help diagnose the disease. Doctors typically look for multiple clinical signs of lupus, including family history and symptoms, before confirming the presence of the disease.

How is lupus treated?

With no cure currently available, doctors focus on managing the symptoms and protecting the body’s organs and tissues from this lifelong condition. Treatment will vary depending on the severity of symptoms, age of the patient, general health and medical history, with some patients needing little intervention and others requiring an aggressive strategy. There are a range of medications available, according to the Lupus Foundation of America, including anticoagulants (to prevent blood clots), antimalarials (to guard against skin rashes and UV light, immunosuppressives (to stop the immune system from attacking) and anti-inflammatories and steroids (to relieve inflammation).

Preventing lupus flare-ups

While there is no sure way to prevent the disease, it may be possible to avoid flare-ups by avoiding exposure to the sun, maintaining healthy habits (by reducing stress and eating and sleeping well) and keeping your body and its joints in motion through low-impact exercise.

Prevalence of lupus in Canada

It is estimated that between 15,000 and 50,000 Canadians are currently living with lupus, according to Lupus Canada, with women between the ages of 15 and 45 facing the greatest risk. In this particular age group, women are eight to 15 times more likely to develop the disease than men.

Support for lupus

If you or someone you know has been impacted by this disease, check out Lupus Canada. The BC Lupus Society and Lupus Ontario both offer access to online support groups and there are forums where you can discuss the disease with other patients at Lupus.net.

Dave Yasvinski is a writer with Healthing.ca

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