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Lupus 101: An Introduction To The Painful Disease

The immune system protects your body against bacteria and viruses that make you sick when they get into your body. Unfortunately, this important system can have problems of its own, which can lead to infections or illnesses. One of those problems is called lupus.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 73% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 have not heard of lupus or know very little beyond the name. Considering this age group is at the greatest risk of developing lupus, they need to know what the disease is.

Ernest Vina, MD, MS is a rheumatologist who sees patients at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson. He is also an assistant professor with the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He offered his expertise in lupus for this post.

What is lupus?

Dr. Vina explains that lupus is an autoimmune disease. This means the body’s own immune system begins to attack itself. This can cause inflammation of different organs in the body. 
In the United States, experts believe lupus affects roughly 1.5 million people, and Dr. Vina notes there is no evidence that it is becoming more common.

According to Dr. Vina, typical lupus symptoms include:

  • Fevers
  • Rashes on the patient’s nose and cheeks
  • Hair loss
  • Chest pains
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Joint pains or stiffness
  • Urine that looks brown or foamy

The Lupus Foundation of America states 65% of people living with lupus say “chronic pain is the most difficult aspect” of the disease.

While lupus may not directly lead to someone getting another disease, other conditions are commonly seen in lupus patients when compared to people without it.

These diseases and conditions include:

  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Osteoporosis
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • Antiphospholipid syndrome
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Headaches
  • Depression
  • Other autoimmune diseases

Who gets lupus?

It can be hard to predict who will get lupus, but a few common risk factors can help doctors identify people who may be susceptible to developing the disease. Dr. Vina says lupus is more commonly seen in people with a family history of autoimmune disease, but gender plays a significant role in who gets the disease, too.

“This is a disease that is much more common in women than in men,” Dr. Vina said. “It is also more common among African-Americans, Hispanics and other racial or ethnic minorities.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s statistics show that 9 out of 10 (90%) newly diagnosed lupus patients are women between the ages of 15 and 44. The Lupus Foundation also notes lupus is two to three times more prevalent in women of color.

With women developing lupus at a greater rate than men, it begs the question: Why? Unfortunately, it may not be as easy to answer.

“It has been theorized that particular hormones, such as estrogen, play an important role in predisposing people to developing the disease,” Dr. Vina said.

Lupus treatment

The Lupus Foundation believes that 10-15% of people with lupus will die prematurely from complications related to the disease. Dr. Vina notes there are other reasons you should seek treatment.

First, the rash lupus causes can result in permanent scarring, and arthritis can lead to chronic joint pain. Kidney disease developed from lupus can lead to kidney failure, which requires dialysis. The chronic inflammation from lupus can lead to early onset of heart attack and other cardiovascular diseases.

“Heart attack and stroke are of particular concern in patients with lupus,” Dr. Vina said.

While there is no cure for lupus, there are ways you can successfully help manage it. You won’t be surprised at the first two things because they can help fight several diseases and conditions: diet and exercise.

A well-balanced and heart-healthy diet is essential in improving the outcomes of lupus patients,” Dr. Vina said. “Exercise would also be helpful in maintaining lupus patients’ strength and mobility.”

Beyond that, it is important you get vaccinated for pneumonia and the flu. Also note excessive sun exposure may make the disease worse, so you should use sunscreen regularly if you have lupus.

For medications, Dr. Vina says there are some that can help treat lupus. Among the medications your doctor may recommend are anti-inflammatory agents, hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine, different immunosuppressive agents and glucocorticoids, such as steroids.

Additionally, Dr. Vina notes that smoking can make some of the disease’s manifestations worse and can decrease your response to medicines typically used to treat it. If you smoke, it may be very helpful to quit if you have been diagnosed with lupus.

Finally, Dr. Vina highly recommends seeing a rheumatologist if you have been diagnosed or are suspected of having lupus.

“A rheumatologist can be helpful in determining if the patient has lupus or not,” Dr. Vina said. “The rheumatologist may also help in controlling the manifestations of the disease.”

To find a rheumatologist near you, visit

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