Lupus is a shape-shifting disease that can masquerade as any number of maladies. It’s a potentially life-threatening autoimmune disorder that can strike anyone, at any age, in entirely unpredictable ways.
Although it is a hard condition to diagnose it is critical to catch it early. Therefore, being able to recognize the symptoms of lupus is critical. With that in mind, here are some of the essential things you need to know about lupus (including 15 early warning signs).
What is lupus?
Lupus is a disease where the body’s defenses (in the form of antibodies) end up attacking healthy tissues. At present, it’s not exactly clear why the immune system goes haywire, but when it does it leads to chronic inflammation, pain and the destruction of healthy cells and organs.
The disease usually strikes women of childbearing age (nine out of ten patients with lupus are female). As a result, medical experts believe there is a hormonal component. Genes, environmental toxins and dietary factors are also thought to be at work.
Lupus can manifest in many forms from mild to severe to life-threatening. In addition, sudden flare-ups can make the disease very hard to predict. If caught and treated early enough, then patients with lupus can expect to live a normal lifespan, but early diagnosis and intervention are imperative. For this reason, advocacy groups, like the Lupus Foundation of America, have launched a “Know Lupus” campaign.
Signs you might have lupus
Lupus has been called “the great imitator” because so many of its symptoms are similar to those that typify other conditions (like fibromyalgia, thyroid disease and arthritis). However, here are a number of signs that could indicate lupus:
- Extreme chronic fatigue
- A malar rash (a butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks, face or nose)
- Joint swelling and pain
- Sensitivity to light
- Edema (swelling) of the extremities and/or around the eyes
- Raynaud’s phenomenon (your fingers turn white or blue when it’s cold)
- Hair loss
- Ulcers in the mouth or nose
- A fever
- Pleurisy (chest pain during deep breaths)
- Discoid rash (red, raised, disk-shaped patches)
- Kidney problems (including excess cellular material in the urine)
- Neurological disorders (such as seizures or psychosis)
These symptoms are closely identical to set of criteria developed by the American College of Rheumatology, which are designed to help doctors diagnose lupus. According to their recommendations, having four or more of any of these symptoms at any one time is a “strong” indication that a person has lupus.
What happens if I’m diagnosed with lupus?
Lupus is not something that should go untreated because life-threatening flare-ups can occur at any time. However, as many as 50 percent of lupus patients will only experience mild (non-life threatening) symptoms such as headaches and chronic fatigue. In any event, medical practitioners insist that constant monitoring is essential to prevent a potentially fatal progression of the disease.
In the past, the five-year survival rate for a person with lupus was just 50 percent, but that figure has increased to over 95 percent through the use of steroidal and antimalarial medications, which suppress immune overactivity. For milder case, doctors often prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to manage pain and symptoms.
Foods that can trigger lupus
Since the immune system and inflammation play a central role in lupus, many people have focused on the dietary factors that may impact the disease. In particular, the following inflammatory foods have been identified as possible triggers (and things to stay away from if you have the condition):
- Processed foods
- Excessive sugar
- Alcohol and caffeine
- Trans fats (this includes red meat and fried foods)
- High sodium foods (since they can damage the kidneys, which are often targeted by lupus)
- Gluten (intolerance has been linked to leaky gut syndrome, which may precipitate sudden inflammation flare-ups)
Foods that fight lupus
On the other hand, there are good reasons to believe that an anti-inflammatory diet could help people with lupus. Foods to add to your diet include:
- Omega-3 rich foods such as wild caught salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel
- Olive oil
- Antioxidant-rich coconut oil
- Raw organic fruits and vegetables (these fiber and nutrient-rich foods will improve the health of your digestive system while counteracting inflammation)
Medication and food can offer relief
Lupus is a very serious condition that presents numerous challenges because it can be so unpredictable. As lupus patient Mallory Dixon explains, “That’s the hard thing with lupus, the unknown of when you’re going to have a really bad flare-up.”
Dixon adds that “Everyone has to figure out her own triggers” as well as what medications and foods can offer relief. This can be a trial and error processes that you undertake with your physician. The good news is that if you heed the warning signs and work closely with your doctor, then you stand a good chance of putting the disease in the back seat and living a full life.
— Scott O’Reilly