May is Lupus Awareness Month, but unless you have the disease yourself or know someone who does, you may not know much about it.
What is lupus?
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lupus is a chronic, or long-term, autoimmune disease that can cause inflammation and pain in any part of the body. An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks itself because it cannot tell the difference between healthy tissue and foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses.
Lupus symptoms can show up in a variety of ways and are often mistaken for symptoms of other diseases. That’s why it can be hard to diagnose and is often called “the great imitator.” Lupus symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, so early diagnosis and treatment by a rheumatologist are important. A rheumatologist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis, lupus and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bones.
There are four types of lupus, although when people talk about the disease, they’re generally taking about systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, the most common type. The other three kinds are:
- Cutaneous lupus, a form of lupus that’s limited to the skin.
- Drug-induced lupus, a lupus-like disease caused by certain prescription drugs.
- Neonatal lupus, a rare condition that affects infants of women who have lupus.
SLE can develop in anyone of any age, race or ethnicity, but it is more common among Black and Latina women and women of child-bearing age (15 to 44 years old).
Ninety percent of people diagnosed with lupus are women. Among those, Black and Latina women are two to three times more likely than white women to develop lupus and have more severe disease progression.
In a CDC-funded study of death rates among people with SLE, Black people had higher mortality rates than white people, and deaths occurred sooner after diagnosis. Among those with SLE, Black people were significantly younger when they died than white people (average age of 52 vs. 64).
Difficult to Diagnose
There is no single test for SLE. To arrive at such a diagnosis, a doctor will consider the patient’s symptoms, signs observed during physical exams, and the results of X-rays and lab tests.
SLE may be hard to diagnose because its signs and symptoms are nonspecific and can mimic the signs and symptoms of other diseases. SLE may also be misdiagnosed, so it’s important to seek a second opinion from a rheumatologist.
Incurable, Yet Treatable
Although there is no cure for lupus, people with the disease can manage it with proper treatment and lead long, happy lives. The goals of treatment are to manage current symptoms, avoid future “flares” – or times when symptoms get worse – and prevent damage to joints and organs by calming the immune system. Because the symptoms of lupus vary widely, management depends on a person’s individual symptoms and needs. Seeing a doctor regularly and following the prescribed course of treatments is important. Adopting healthy behaviors and learning skills to manage the disease can also be beneficial.
For more about Lupus Awareness Month, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s lupus website. And you can learn more about lupus at these helpful links: