Lupus is shorthand for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and incorporates a collection of symptoms, in an autoimmune disease process that varies in severity. An autoimmune disease means that the body sees certain parts of its own organs as foreign and starts to attack them. In lupus, this is connective tissue, the scaffolding of every part of the body, and made up of cells, fibres and a gel-like substance. It underpins bones, cartilage, blood and fat.
Lupus commonly affects the skin, where rashes may develop, particularly in response to sunlight. This can cause a distinctive "butterfly rash", where the nose bridge and both cheeks appear very red, like the symmetrical wings of a butterfly. Other rashes can develop, and skin may be the only system to show signs of SLE.
Less commonly, and more seriously, lupus may affect the joints, kidneys, blood vessels, heart, lungs, hair and even mental health. Affecting multiple organs is a more severe form, and flare-ups may come in episodes, lasting a few weeks or months then clear up, only to come again. This is harder to treat, but the symptoms of lupus can be kept at bay by medications. These work to dampen down the immune response.
SLE sufferers often complain of tiredness, and this may be the reason they first present to their doctor. Joint pain and swelling, and mouth ulcers are common too.
Lupus is not contagious to others. It affects about 1 in 1,000 people in the UK and is about six times more common in women than in men. It usually develops between the ages of 15 and 50 but anyone at any age can be affected. It is more common in people of Afro-Caribbean, Asian, or Chinese descent and can run in families, and affect pregnancies. Those with lupus are advised to visit their doctor or specialist when planning a pregnancy for further advice on supplements and continuing any current medications.
Lupus has very limited treatment options at the pharmacy aside from pain relief, and anti-inflammatories for joint-related pain. It is best to see your doctor to discuss investigations and treatments.
There are also charity organisations such as Lupus UK which can offer additional help and support (www.lupusuk.org).
Depending on your symptoms, you may be fit for work if you have lupus.
Lupus is a serious condition and requires care for the long term. If you suspect you have lupus, you should book an appointment with your doctor – either as routine or with urgency, depending on the severity of your symptoms. If you have joint pain or swelling, a new rash or you have fatigue for several weeks without an obvious cause, these are all reasons to contact your doctor.
They will listen to your symptoms and examine you. They may send you for certain blood tests, and if suspicions are high from all of this, they will refer you to the relevant expert, such as a dermatologist or rheumatologist.
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