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An Overview of Lupus by Elizabeth Dare

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The purpose of this paper is to provide the reader with a basic understanding of lupus.  In short, lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can mildly or severely affect any part of the body.  It is often referred to as “The Great Imitator” because symptoms resemble so many other illnesses.

At least 1.5 million Americans are estimated to have a form of lupus, as well as an additional 3.5 million people worldwide.  Ninety percent of sufferers are females between the ages of 15 and 44, and are more frequently people of color.  Although no genetic link has been established, it appears that people who have a family member with lupus have an increased risk of having the disease.

There are four types of lupus:  1) systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, is the most common form.  It may affect the brain and nervous system, digestive tract, heart, lungs, and/or skin, 2) cutaneous lupus erythematosus, which is limited to the skin, 3) drug-induced lupus erythematosus, which does not affect major organ systems and generally goes away when the drug is no longer being taken, and 4) neonatal lupus, which occurs as a result of antibodies acting on the fetus in utero.  This type often disappears after birth but can result in a serious heart defect in rare cases.

Lupus has a wide range of signs and symptoms, making it exceptionally difficult to diagnose.  These often appear in ‘flares’ and will be present for some time, followed by a period of remission.  The most common sign is a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks, but this is not present in every case.  Other signs and symptoms include extreme fatigue, painful or swollen joints, headaches, fever, anemia, swelling around the eyes and feet, pain in the chest upon deep breathing, photosensitivity, hair loss, abnormal blood clotting, fingers turning white/blue in the cold, and swollen lymph nodes.

Lupus is generally set off by an environmental trigger such as UV rays, sun-sensitizing drugs, infection, viral illness, exhaustion, injury, or stress.  There appears to be a link between elevated estrogen levels, such as before a menstrual period or during pregnancy, and increased lupus flares.

Diagnosis of lupus involves a combination of laboratory tests, medications, and trial and error to eliminate other possibilities.  It can be a very time-consuming process, taking anywhere from several months to years.  Once a diagnosis has been made, treatment usually involves NSAIDS, corticosteroids, anti-malarial drugs, specific protein inhibitors, immunosuppressive drugs, and/or chemotherapy.

If lupus is not properly treated, it can have a variety of ill effects on a person’s health, such as blood clots in the legs or lungs, hemolytic anemia, fluid around the heart or lungs, pregnancy complications, stroke, severely low platelet count, inflammation of the blood vessels, osteoporosis, or kidney disease.

Living with lupus involves lifestyle changes that would be considered beneficial for the general population as a whole.  Exercise is encouraged, as well as stress reduction.  Getting plenty of rest may help combat fatigue.  Wearing UV protection at all times is important, and in some cases, minimizing exposure to the sun.  Lupus is generally not life-threatening or life-shortening, especially if a person takes steps to help the body cope with the disease.


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1.  Lupus Foundation of America, Inc.  http://www.lupus.org/webmodules/webarticlesnet/templates/new_learnunderstanding.aspx?articleid=2231&zoneid=523

2.  Mayo Clinic.  http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/lupus/DS00115

3.  PubMed Health.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001471/

4.  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Women’s Health.  http://www.womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/lupus.cfm


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