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That mystifying lupus disease

August 2012

Lupus diseaseFor several years a local group near here has been raising funds for research into lupus disease. I didn’t know much about the disease and thought it was perhaps a very unusual problem until I heard there was a World Lupus Day to raise funds for sufferers around the world. Add to that recent information that over 50,000 people in the UK and over 1.5 million in America have the disease, and I thought it was time to find out some more.

It seems lupus is really a disorder of the auto-immune system. This means a part of the body changes and instead of offering protection to a specific area, it turns around and can attack it instead. This can lead to inflammation and damage and the problem can affect many different parts, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and even the brain.

Because of the wide range of areas it can affect, there are many different sub categories of lupus disease, such as discoid lupus erythematosus (a chronic skin disorder). Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the name given to the disease when it affects many parts of the body.

This means of course that people with lupus disease have many different symptoms, and this is why it can be confusing for people. Problems such as extreme fatigue, unexplained fever, kidney problems, skin rashes or swollen joints can all be caused by lupus. Relevant for our age groups, having had lupus, even in the past, can increase the risk of developing osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes and heart attack.

Lupus disease can affect people of any age, but generally 90% of sufferers are women and the disease usually strikes during child-bearing age. Interestingly, lupus is also more prevalent in women of African, Asian and native American descent. Lupus can run in families and there is genetic linkage which is currently under research. It is also thought that other aspects such as stress plus environmental factors such as sunlight can all contribute to the development of the disease in susceptible people.

Of course with the range of areas lupus can attack, there are no straight forward symptoms or diagnosis and often the early symptoms could also indicate many other diseases. It can take several months, or sometimes years, before the disease is definitely identified. Blood testing is often used but this is not always definitive.

Because of this, treatments vary considerably. It is interesting that quite a few lupus sufferers have suffered from an allergy to certain drugs such as an antibiotics or penicillin. Generally treatment falls into four main groups depending on the symptoms: aspirin and non-steroids; anti-malarial; steroids and immune-suppressive drugs.

Obviously if the patient is suffering from pain, then pain relieving drugs are important. The doctor will examine all aspects before working out the best course of treatment to help alleviate the specific problems.

There has been recent publicity about plasma exchange (plasma-pheresis) which removes blood from a vein, spins it into separate various components, and then certain flawed aspects are removed and replaced with substitutes before the blood is returned to the body. But the long term benefits of this treatment are still being researched.

With such a difficult disease to diagnose and treat, no wonder lupus is still a mystery problem to many people.

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