By: Howard Smith, MD
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Across the United States, nearly 1.5 million people are living with lupus. Although the incidence of lupus has tripled since the 1970s, scientists and medical researchers still don’t know what causes the disease.
Lupus comes in various forms, but by far the most common type is systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE). When you have lupus, your immune system cannot tell the difference between foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues and so it inappropriately attacks and destroy healthy tissue. The result is inflammation and pain in different parts of your body.
The symptoms and outcomes of this autoimmune disease can vary greatly, from mild joint and skin problems to life-threatening conditions that affect the heart, kidneys and/or nervous system. If lupus is not diagnosed early and properly treated, organ damage may occur.
Many people with active lupus feel poor in general and experience fever, weight loss and tiredness. People with lupus also develop specific problems when the immune system attacks a particular organ or area in the body.
These areas include:
The skin: Some patients with lupus have a red rash over their cheeks and the bridge of their noses. Other skin problems include large red, circular rashes that can scar. Skin rashes usually are aggravated by sunlight.
The joints: Arthritis is very common in people with lupus. It may be a problem that lasts for only a few days, or one that is persistent.
The kidneys: Kidney involvement in people with lupus is potentially life-threatening. The earliest signs of kidney disease are apparent from a urinalysis and often are first suspected when lupus patients feel ill with arthritis, have a rash, fever and weight loss.
The blood: People with lupus may have dangerous reductions in the number of red blood cells, white blood cells or platelets, which are cells that help clot the blood. Many times, there are no symptoms when the blood is involved, but some clues can be fatigue, serious infections or easy bruising.
The brain: Involvement with the brain can cause confusion, depression, seizures and, rarely, strokes. Fortunately, brain involvement is rare.
The heart and lungs: Lupus can cause inflammation of the tissues that cover the heart and the lungs. Patients may develop chest pain, irregular heartbeat and accumulation of fluid around the lungs and heart.
Because lupus may affect several important organs and lead to serious complications, a multidisciplinary team approach is essential for timely diagnosis and proper treatment.