The immune system is a mysterious mechanism. Like a pitbull, the immune system will guard against foreign attackers mercilessly to protect its home, and yet, it can also turn on its master, attacking it ferociously all the same. Doctors aren’t exactly sure what causes the autoimmune disease called systemic lupus, but they suspect it’s a murky concoction of factors.
Inherited genes, UV light, hormones, viruses and drugs may all contribute to the condition. Some of the most recent Lupus Foundation research suggests that a key enzyme fails to eliminate cellular debris, which can happen as a result of a gene mutation.
So, you ask, what are the symptoms and signs of systemic lupus? In 5-10% of the patients with systemic lupus erythematosus, they develop red, bordered, non-itchy skin rashes on the face and scalp. This form of lupus is called “discoid lupus” and while painless, can cause permanent hair loss and scarring.
Half the patients with systemic lupus have a red “butterfly rash” across the bridge of their nose and experience extreme sensitivity to sunlight. Most patients experience arthritis in their hands, wrists and feet.
More serious inflammation of organs occurs in the brain, liver, and kidneys. White blood cells and blood clotting factors also can be decreased in SLE, thereby increasing the risk of infection and bleeding. Inflamed muscles, blood vessels, lungs, kidneys and other body parts can cause internal injuries resulting in chest pain, fluid retention, high blood pressure, kidney failure, loss of appetite, seizures, comas, personality changes, fatigue, fever, numbness, hair loss and Raynaud’s phenomenon (lack of blood supply and pain in the fingers and toes). The symptoms vary, depending on which part of the body is affected and the severity of the condition, of course.
Doctors can diagnose systemic lupus using eleven criteria established by the American Rheumatism Association. If a patient has four or more symptoms, then a diagnosis is strongly urged. Symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus are: malar (butterfly rash over the cheeks), discoid skin rash (patchy redness), photosensitivity (reaction to sunlight), mucus membrane ulcers (in the mouth, nose or throat), arthritis (swollen, tender joints), pleuritis/pericarditis (inflammation of the lungs/heart tissue), kidney abnormalities (excessive urine protein or cellular casts), brain irritation (seizures or psychosis), blood count abnormalities (low red or white blood cells), immunologic disorder (anti-DNA or abnormal activity) and antinuclear antibody (presence of ANA antibody). Blood tests, blood chemistry tests, body fluid tests and tissue biopsies can help uncover symptoms of lupus as well.
Treatment for systemic lupus is determined on an individual basis, depending on symptoms and inflammation levels. Patients with mild symptoms may not need treatment at all, but those with more serious symptoms may try medications that suppress the body’s immune system or decreases inflammation.
Many patients report difficulty sleeping, which can lead to depression, lethargy, random eating patterns and diminished coping abilities. Therefore, sleep aids are an important complementary treatment. Most recently, the 2007 national Rheumatology meeting said that an omega-3 fish oil supplement may decrease heart risks and diminish disease activity.