What Every Woman Needs to Know About Lupus

This week Selena Gomez revealed she underwent chemotherapy to fight lupus. And Lady Gaga says she's tested "borderline positive" for the disease. But what is lupus, exactly, and how do you get it? It turns out lupus a very tricky disease to diagnose.

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We talked with Sarah Stothers, National Nurse Educator for the Lupus Foundation of America. She says the Centers for Disease Center has just started tracking the illness, so we're still learning about it. LFA estimates that 1.5 million Americans have the disease, and possibly 5 million people worldwide have it. It's most common among women between the ages of 15 and 44 (men and boys can get it, too), and women of color are two to three times more likely to get lupus than Caucasian women are.

"It's so hard to diagnose and can often times be misdiagnosed," Stothers says. "It's known as the great imitator. Sometimes someone may go for a long time with a different diagnosis when it was lupus all along." That makes tracking the disease more difficult, too.

What is lupus?

The Lupus Foundation of America defines lupus as "a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body)." An autoimmune disease is when your immune system loses its ability to tell the difference between foreign invaders and healthy tissues, so it creates antibodies to attack both. 

What are common symptoms?

Stothers says when it comes to lupus symptoms, "no two people are alike. Everyone is very different." That said, it often starts when people feel "off" -- they may have unusual rashes or sensitivity to sunlight. It all depends on which part of the body the disease attacks and how severe your lupus is. 

One major characteristic of lupus is "flares," episodes when symptoms intensify, followed by remissions, when symptoms improve or maybe even disappear. "Flares and remissions are different for everyone," Stothers says. "They're unpredictable and can last days or weeks. You may feel great one day, and then can't get out of bed the next.

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Here are some other common symptoms.

1. Butterfly-shaped facial rash over the bridge of your nose and over your cheeks

2. Fatigue

3. Joint pain/stiffness/swelling

4. Photosensitivity (skin lesions that get worse after sun exposure)

5. Fingers or toes turning blue or white in the cold or in stressful situations, known as Reynaud's phenomenon

6. Fever

"Unfortunately there's no one test for lupus," Stothers says. Patients will usually undergo a whole battery of tests to find the cause of whatever symptoms they have. "It really takes a good medical history of your family, plus lab tests and taking in environmental factors," she says. Having a family member who has had lupus or any other autoimmune disease can increase your chances of having lupus, which is why those family medical records are so important for a diagnosis.

How do you get it?

Lupus is not contagious. Doctors aren't sure what exactly causes it, but it appears that certain people may be genetically predisposed to get it, and that certain environmental factors may trigger it in those people. Those factors include stress, sunlight exposure, infections, and certain medications.

It's not related to cancer, and it's not related to HIV.

How is it treated?

Because the symptoms vary widely, treatment for lupus varies as well. We know Selena Gomez's lupus was treated with chemotherapy. Other treatments include antimalarial drugs, corticosteroids (like Prednisone), and immunosuppressants. Anti-inflammatory pain relievers like naproxen sodium and ibuprofen (or stronger, prescription strength versions) are commonly used to control swelling, fever, and pain.

This is a tricky disease, but it can be treated if you work closely with a well-informed and persistent doctor. Do not hesitate to start asking questions if you suspect you may have lupus.

 

Image via Antonio Guillem/shutterstock; Photographee.eu/Shutter

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