A friend of mine suffers from lupus, a chronic autoimmune disorder that can cause intense pain in her joints and muscles and damages her complexion. The wicked pain usually strikes both sides of her body at the same time. Unfortunately, this debilitating condition lasts a lifetime.
For reasons not fully understood, the body’s immune system sometimes produces inflammation, turns on itself, and breaks down its own cells. This causes inflammation and tissue damage to the skin, joints, and other parts of the body. The immune system’s inability to tell the difference between these foreign invaders and the body’s healthy tissues is called autoimmunity (“auto” means “self”).
Chronic conditions such as lupus are those whose signs and symptoms last longer than about six weeks and often for many years.
The immune system is composed of various organs, cells, and proteins that work together to protect our bodies from foreign invasion by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and chemicals released by microbes (toxins). The immune system is composed of two parts that work together:
- We are all born with the innate immune system.
- We develop an adaptive immune system as we grow when exposed to microbes or chemicals produced by microbes.
The mission of the innate immune system is to seek and destroy all invaders. It is the body’s first responder, inherited and activated at birth. When a foreign body is detected, the immune system surrounds and engulfs the invader, killing it inside the immune system cells, called phagocytes.
The acquired immune system, however, acts more like a hired assassin. With some assistance from the innate immune system, the acquired system produces cells called antibodies to protect the body from a specific invader. Cells called B lymphocytes creates antibodies after exposure to a foreign invader.
Although antibodies may not develop for several days, the immune system learns from the first exposure to identify and defend against that particular invader. Vaccines were invented to deliver pathogens safely to force an acquired immunity response in children, almost eradicating polio.
Immune system disorders cause abnormally low or high immune system activity. Autoimmune diseases occur when the immune system becomes hyperactive, attacking and destroying the body’s tissue rather than foreign invaders. Because the high-activity immune system is pre-occupied with killing the wrong tissues, the body becomes more susceptible to infections.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) is a condition where autoimmune antibodies attach to tissues throughout the body and begin damaging them. Target areas more likely to be affected are the joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys but the heart, brain, and other vital organs are at risk.
Lupus strikes several body parts simultaneously and symptoms vary. Attacks can be frequent or rare and they can vanish as suddenly as they appear.
- Body aches
- Chest pain
- Chronic dry eyes
- Joint pain
- Kidney (urinary) problems
- Light sensitivity
- Memory loss
- Rashes (including a butterfly-shaped facial rash over the cheeks and nose)
- Shortness of breath
- Skin lesions
Nephritis (kidney inflammation) is a later symptom of lupus that can cause elevated blood pressure, dark urine, and bloody urine.
Experts believe that lupus is triggered by one or more underlying factors, including the environment (smoking, stress, toxic exposure); genetics (a family history); hormones (such as increased estrogen levels); infections (such as Epstein-Barr or hepatitis C); and prolonged use of certain medications (such as hydralazine, procainamide, and quinidine).
Additional useful facts about lupus shed more light on the nature of this mysterious affliction. Lupus is:
- Not contagious
- Not like or related to cancer
- Not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
- Mild to life-threatening
- Should always be treated by a doctor
With prompt and proper care and treatment, lupus patients can carry on with their daily activities. Untreated, lupus can cause permanent organ damage.
There is no known cure for lupus. Treatment for autoimmune diseases usually focuses on slowing down immune system activity. Therapeutic options for sufferers of lupus include:
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Steroids such as daily oral prednisone
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
Women between the ages of 15 and 44 who belong to certain ethnic groups, such as African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, or Pacific Islander are at the highest risk for lupus.
Avoiding direct sunlight, getting plenty of good rest, and practicing stress reduction and infection prevention techniques can help prevent a lupus flare-up.
The good news is that while scientists seek a cure for this autoimmune disorder, most people who find a suitable treatment for their lupus can enjoy a full life today.