What is Lupus?

At least 1.5 million Americans have the chronic inflammatory disease lupus. Most of these people are women of childbearing age, though symptoms can appear earlier than that. However, by the nature of lupus, the actual number of cases may be unknowable.

Although some drugs for hypertension or arrhythmia can cause lupus, usually it is an autoimmune disease affecting the kidneys and other internal organs. It can be difficult to detect, because the symptoms often mimic those of other illnesses. As with other autoimmune diseases, it seems to have a genetic component, with a family history of lupus being considered a risk factor.

Other risk factors are being a woman– more than 90 percent of lupus patients are– and not being white, Lupus among African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans is more common, often more severe, and typically strikes younger than with white patients. Most women with lupus experience symptoms between the ages of 15 and 44.

The disease lasts a lifetime, but has periods of flare-up alternating with periods of remission. Symptoms of a flare-up include fatigue, fever, light sensitivity and a skin rash, often butterfly-shaped on the face. Long-term there can be mouth sores and hair loss. In some patients, fingernails crack or fall off, and the nail bed can change color or turn puffy. The first sign, however, is often joint pain.

However, lupus symptoms can be very different in different patients, and the disease often resembles other illnesses. Even testing isn’t always a sure thing, and there is in fact no lupus test. Instead, doctors do a variety of tests to gather information about the patient, and will consider the patient’s medical and family history, to determine if lupus may be a specific patient’s illness. These tests include a complete blood count, of all the components of blood; a sedimentation test, timing how long it takes red blood cells to settle in a test tube, which helps measure general health; and a urine test, to measure kidney function.

Because lupus is so hard to identify and distinguish from other ailments, doctors don’t recommend getting any sort of testing unless symptoms are present. If you do have symptoms, however, including a butterfly rash or joint pain, talk to your health care provider.

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