A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Lupus: Minimize complications with proactive care

What is lupus?

People with lupus have sensitivity to sun exposure and can develop rashes on their face and body.

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can involve different organs throughout a patient’s life. It is caused by auto-antibodies that attack the body’s tissues and can lead to organ damage.

Lupus symptoms vary

Because lupus affects a number of different organs, symptoms can be wide-ranging including frequent fevers, joint pain or swelling, excessive hair loss or headaches. People with lupus have sensitivity to sun exposure and can develop rashes on their face or body. It also can cause chest pain and shortness of breath. In some cases, people have seizures or mental health related symptoms such as psychosis or depression. In children, lupus commonly impacts the kidneys, nervous system, blood and cardiovascular system.

Early diagnosis and ongoing treatment by a rheumatologist can minimize complications. So, talk with your doctor if you or your child have prolonged or unexplained fever, joint pains and swelling, rashes and sensitivity to sun exposure, chronic chest pain or mouth sores.

If your provider suspects you have lupus, a rheumatologist will review your detailed medical history, do a physical exam and perform several blood and urine tests. “Since the presentation of lupus can mimic many other diseases such as infections and cancer, it is important to rule out other, more common diseases before diagnosing lupus,” said Dr. Suhas Ganguli, Marshfield Clinic Health System pediatric rheumatologist.

Exact causes are unknown

Multiple factors can influence why a person develops lupus. A family history of lupus and other autoimmune conditions and genetics can increase risk. African American, Asian and Hispanic individuals have a greater risk of developing the disease. Women of childbearing age are more likely to have lupus then men. However, 20% of the cases are in patients under the age of 20.

Lupus symptoms can flare up and subside. How the disease affects you can change as you age. The most common treatments are steroids to control inflammation and other immune suppressive medications. “Overall, the philosophy is to use the minimum duration and dose of immune suppression necessary to gain maximum disease control possible,” Ganguli said.

Because these medications make people susceptible to infection, children with lupus must receive all immunizations with the exception of some live vaccines depending on their disease severity and medications.

Lifestyle choices impact quality of life

It’s important to see your doctor regularly to address routine health concerns and manage symptoms. Since prolonged use of steroids reduces bone density, weight-bearing exercises can help prevent osteoporosis.

Sun exposure can trigger a flare. Wear protective clothing in the sun like hats, long sleeves and pants, and eye protection. Patients should use sunscreen daily, regardless of weather and while inside, and they should stay out of the sun during the peak hours.

Making healthy choices can improve daily life for people with lupus. “A healthy balanced diet and regular exercise with ideal body weight maintenance can help offset cardiovascular effects of the disease as well as side effects of medication such as steroids,” Ganguli said.

Lupus and COVID-19

Due to immunosuppressed status, patients with lupus are at increased risk of moderate to severe symptomatic disease with COVID-19. It is highly recommended that these patients receive their COVID-19 vaccines, including additional and/or booster doses.

If you have any questions, you should discuss them with their rheumatologist or primary care provider.

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