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Everything You Need to Know About Lupus: Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

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Last Updated Mar 15, 2022

Everything You Need to Know About Lupus: Signs, Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Lupus is a painful autoimmune disease that can potentially be life-threatening. It occurs when the immune system begins to attack the body's healthy cells, causing inflammation and damage. Almost any part of the body can be affected, especially the skin, joints and internal organs, increasing the risk of heart failure, kidney failure and other organ damage. At the same time that the damage is occurring, the body's immune response weakens, so it may "forget" to fight infection, meaning that you are prone to illness.

What are the Symptoms of Lupus?

The most well-known symptom of lupus is a crimson, butterfly-shaped rash, also known as malar rash, across the cheeks. Lupus symptoms often don't develop until later in life, though it can also affect children. The symptoms range from mild to lupus flares, which are marked by a significant worsening of symptoms over a period of weeks or months. In addition to the facial skin rash, other common symptoms of this chronic condition include:

  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Muscle pain
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • Dry eyes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to sun exposure
  • Low blood cell count
  • Decreased kidney function
  • High blood pressure
Lupus symptomsSource: painresource.com

More than 50 percent of people with lupus also suffer from mouth sores, weight gain and anaemia. People with lupus may also feel extreme fatigue, which is a sign of anaemia, resulting from insufficient red blood cells to distribute oxygen throughout the body. People who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis may notice that lupus symptoms are identical to those of RA. If symptoms become too uncomfortable or start to damage a patient's vital organs and disrupt their daily life function, then it is important to speak with a qualified health professional about various treatments for lupus. 

What Causes Lupus?

Identifying the main cause of an autoimmune disorder like lupus remains a challenge for many researchers. However, genetic and environmental factors are thought to play a part. Women are more likely to suffer from lupus than men. This is especially true for women in their reproductive years due to their high oestrogen levels. Pregnant women with lupus are at risk of suffering a miscarriage or preterm delivery. Although some babies born to women with lupus are diagnosed with neonatal lupus, which may potentially develop into a condition known as congenital heart block, most usually come out healthy and normal. 

Exposure to sunlight, infections and certain medications are other factors that increase the risk of lupus. It's worth noting, though, that drug-induced lupus usually goes away on its own when the patient stops taking the medication that triggers the symptoms.

Effective Treatments for Lupus

There is no cure for lupus yet, but treatment can help you live a normal, healthy life despite the periodic flares. The treatment for lupus varies depending on its severity. A patient's treatment plan may include medication, self-care measures, lifestyle changes and possibly surgery. The medications used to treat someone with mild symptoms are not the same as that of a person whose symptoms are life-threatening or disabling. Qualified healthcare professionals, such as rheumatologists, can prescribe the appropriate medicine based on a patient's symptoms.  

Conventional lupus medications include anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids and immunosuppressants. However, you do not have to rely solely on conventional treatments as there are natural therapies that may prove to be useful in the treatment and management of lupus.

Herbal Medicine

There are several herbal remedies that may be of help to lupus sufferers. Pycnogenol is an extract that is taken from the French maritime pine, and it contains oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPCs) and other bioflavonoids that help to reduce inflammation in the body. Taking pycnogenol as an oral supplement may be helpful for minimising the redness that occurs as a result of ultraviolet light. Other herbs that may help with inflammation include yucca, nettle, turmeric, bromelain and feverfew. As well as having anti-inflammatory properties, feverfew also mimics the effects of conventional anti-inflammatory medications and corticosteroids.

St John's Wort is useful for depression, a condition that is often experienced by patients with lupus. Valerian and passionflower are good for the central nervous system, helping to calm and sedate it.

Vitamin and Nutritional Supplements

When the body is in a state of inflammation, more free radicals will be produced. These free radicals can harm cells. To counteract these free radicals, antioxidants are needed. Some of the best antioxidants are vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene, selenium, zinc and bioflavonoids. It is best to get your antioxidants from a varied, healthy diet that is high in fruits and vegetables. However, if you choose to take supplements, 1000-3000 milligrams of vitamin C, 400-600 international units of vitamin E, 200-400 micrograms of selenium and 15-30 milligrams of zinc should be adequate. To help the body make its own antioxidants, it may be helpful to take 1-2 milligrams of copper and 5-15 milligrams of manganese a day. To get further advice on this, it would be best to speak with your healthcare provider or a natural health practitioner who specialises in nutrition such as a dietitian or nutritionist. 

Vitamin B6 is a natural diuretic and works with folic acid and vitamin B12 to fight heart disease by preventing blood clots forming and lowering blood pressure. This is important as the corticosteroids used by many lupus patients can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin B12 and folic acid can also be used in the treatment of anaemia, which can occur in some lupus patients.

Vitamin D along with calcium and magnesium is important for the health of the bones. Calcium and magnesium are also important for heart health. An amino acid called carnitine can help the function of the heart by reducing the triglycerides and bad cholesterol in the blood, as well as increasing the levels of good cholesterol. Another amino acid known as l-tryptophan can help relieve stress and anxiety, which may lead to a flare-up of lupus.

Changing the types of fats that you eat can also help you to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body. Meat and other animal products provide the body with a certain type of acid that allows it to make inflammatory chemicals. If you eat fish or other foods that are high in essential fatty acids (EFAs), the inflammatory chemicals will not be produced in as high a number. 

Topical Preparations

Topical preparations can also be used by lupus patients in order to help relieve their symptoms, especially those that occur as a result of inflammation. Painful muscles and joints are among the prominent signs of lupus, which can be treated with topical preparations, such as creams or oils, as they contain anaesthetic or anti-inflammatory ingredients. Creams that contain hyaluron, aurum or quotane may also be useful.

Massage with essential oils such as peppermint oil, tea tree oil or camphor oil can help to relieve pain and improve circulation to the area. Cayenne creams can also be used in massage to serve the same purpose.

Applying sunscreen and staying away from direct sunlight is also vital for lupus sufferers, as exposure to the sun's UV light can trigger a butterfly rash and a variety of symptoms in people who are predisposed to lupus.

DHEA

Lupus can be affected by the fluctuations of hormones in the body. In some people, an imbalance of female and male hormones will cause lupus symptoms to worsen. DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone that causes chain reactions as it is deposited in certain tissues. When the chain reaction is completed, sex hormones are produced. Therefore, taking supplements of DHEA can help the body to produce more sex hormones, bringing the male and female hormones into balance.

How is Lupus Diagnosed?

Lupus symptoms vary from person to person, so getting an accurate diagnosis is critical in finding the best treatment plan. Some people with this condition may not even manifest any symptoms, which makes diagnosis difficult. Your healthcare provider will review your medical history, conduct a physical examination and perform lab tests in order to determine whether your symptoms are those of lupus.

They may also order blood tests and gather urine or tissue samples to see the underlying causes of your symptoms. The results of these tests can show elevated creatinine, anaemia, hypergammaglobulinemia (high levels of antibodies in your blood) or IgM antibodies. Then and only then will they be able to prescribe an effective treatment plan.

People with lupus will live a long, fulfilling, productive life if they can manage to keep their condition under control with the help of eligible healthcare professionals. It's important that they manage their symptoms with not only the right medicine or therapy but also a proactive approach that consists of a balanced diet, healthy lifestyle and a positive mindset.

Originally published on May 21, 2008

FAQs About Lupus

What is the life expectancy of someone with lupus?

Research shows that 90% of people who live with lupus go on to live normal lives so long as they receive proper treatment. Although the condition remains without a cure, monitoring and managing one's symptoms will keep the pain away.

How do you feel when you have lupus?

The majority of lupus patients experience painful joints, which is a common symptom of this autoimmune disease. The hands, fingers and knees are the most commonly affected parts.

What foods trigger lupus flare ups?

Certain foods that help boost a healthy person's immune system can make a lupus patient's condition worse. Garlic and alfalfa sprouts, for example, provide compounds that help the immune system. Unfortunately, it may use its newfound strength to attack your body's healthy tissues. L-canavanine, an amino acid found in alfalfa, activates the immune system. Garlic includes allicin, ajoene and thiosulfinates, which help to produce white blood cells.

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