Researchers are hunting for clues to this mystery. Most likely, lupus develops when a person inherits certain genes from his or her parents, and then factors in the environment such as infection from a virus, exposure to sunlight, extreme stress, or hormone surges trigger the disease. Lupus is not infectious, meaning that a person can’t “catch” lupus from someone else.
While lupus can develop in men or women, it is much more common in women. Most get the disease during their childbearing years. A person of color (African American) is three times more likely to get lupus than a Caucasian individual, and is also more likely to have a disease that is severe. Other groups that get lupus more frequently are Asian-American, Latina/Hispanic, and Native American women.
Many people suffer from lupus for months or years without a diagnosis. Not only do the symptoms of lupus come and go and often look like those of other illnesses, but at this point, no single test can prove that a person has lupus. To make a diagnosis, a doctor needs to ask detailed questions about medical history, do a careful physical examination, and take blood and urine for testing to get a picture of the level of inflammation in the body and how the immune system is working.
There is no cure for lupus, and everyone has a different experience with it. But an early diagnosis and the right treatment can help to lessen pain and other symptoms and lower the risk that organs or tissues will get damaged. Treatments are given based on how active and widespread the lupus is, which is why it’s so important to get tested regularly for blood or urine changes that can signal a flare. Treatments include medicines, stress-relief strategies, healthy diet, physical and emotional rest, psychotherapy, and avoidance (or protection) from direct sunlight. Some of these approaches can make a very big difference in how a person with lupus feels from day to day.
Many people with lupus at some point take prescription corticosteroids, anti-malaria drugs, or other medicines that lessen the immune system’s attack on itself. These powerful drugs can really improve lupus and even protect organs during a flare, but some also have unpleasant side effects. Many people also take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and acetaminophen, which can make a dramatic difference in lessening stiffness, joint pain, and other discomforts.
There isn’t a cure yet, but every year researchers get better insights into lupus and come closer to uncovering less toxic and more specific treatments. In 1955, only 50% of people newly diagnosed with lupus were expected to live more than four years. Today, most people with lupus can look forward to a normal lifespan.
Reviewer: Daniel J. Wallace MD