Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body). Chronic means that the signs and symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years. In lupus, something goes wrong with your immune system, which is the part of the body that fights off viruses, bacteria, and germs (“foreign invaders,” like the flu). Normally our immune system produces proteins called antibodies that protect the body from these invaders. Autoimmune means your immune system cannot tell the difference between these foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues (“auto” means “self”) and creates autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
- Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot “catch” lupus from someone or “give” lupus to someone.
- Lupus is not like or related to cancer. Cancer is a condition of malignant, abnormal tissues that grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, as described above.
- Lupus is not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.
Our research estimates that at least 1.5 million Americans have lupus. The actual number may be higher; however, there have been no large-scale studies to show the actual number of people in the U.S. living with lupus.
- Lupus strikes mostly women of childbearing age (15-44). However, men, children, and teenagers develop lupus, too.
- Women of color are 2-3 times more likely to develop lupus.
- People of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus.
- More than 16,000 new cases of lupus are reported annually across the country.
- It is believed that 5 million people throughout the world have a form of lupus.
Because lupus can affect so many different organs, a wide range of symptoms can occur. These symptoms may come and go, and different symptoms may appear at different times during the course of the disease.
- extreme fatigue (tiredness)
- painful or swollen joints
- swelling (edema) in feet, legs, hands, and/or around eyes
- pain in chest on deep breathing (pleurisy)
- butterfly-shaped rash across cheeks and nose
- sun- or light-sensitivity (photosensitivity)
- hair loss
- mouth or nose ulcers
- abnormal blood clotting
- anemia (low numbers of red blood cells or hemoglobin, or low total blood volume)
fingers turning white and/or blue when cold (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
Many of these symptoms occur in other illnesses besides lupus. In fact, lupus is sometimes called “the great imitator” because its symptoms are often like the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid problems, Lyme disease, and a number of heart, lung, muscle, and bone diseases.
- Lai ZW, Hanczko R, Bonilla E, Caza TN, Clair B, Bartos A, Miklossy G, Jimah J, Doherty E, Tily H, Francis L, Garcia R, Dawood M, Yu J, Ramos I, Coman I, Faraone SV, Phillips PE, Perl A. “N-acetylcysteine reduces disease activity by blocking mammalian target of rapamycin in T cells from systemic lupus erythematosus patients: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.”.
- FDA Alert: Mycophenolate Mofetil (marketed as CellCept) and Mycophenolic Acid (marketed as Myfortic). May 16, 2008.
- “ImmuPharma Announces Final Results Of PhaseIIb Study Of LUPUZOR™ In Lupus”. Medicalnewstoday.com. Retrieved 2011-08-06.
- “Handout on Health: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services”. Retrieved 2010-10-13.
- “Intravenous Immunoglobulins (IVIGs) in Lupus Central Station, sourced from the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services”. Retrieved 2010-10-13.
- Cochat P, Fargue S, Mestrallet G, et al. (February 2009). “Disease recurrence in paediatric renal transplantation”. Pediatr. Nephrol. 24 (11): 2097–108. doi:10.1007/s00467-009-1137-6. PMC 2753770. PMID 19247694.
- Vasudevan AR and Ginzler EM (August 4, 2009). “Established and novel treatments for lupus”. The Journal of Musculoskeletal Medicine 26 (8).
The treatment of SLE involves preventing flares and reducing their severity and duration when they occur.
Treatment can include corticosteroids and anti-malarial drugs. Certain types of lupus nephritis such as diffuse proliferative glomerulonephritis require bouts of cytotoxic drugs. These drugs include cyclophosphamide and mycophenolate.
Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) was approved by the FDA for lupus in 1955. Some drugs approved for other diseases are used for SLE ‘off-label’. In November 2010, an FDA advisory panel recommended approving belimumab (Benlysta) as a treatment for the pain and flare-ups common in lupus. The drug was approved by the FDA in March 2011. N-acetylcysteine has been shown to reverse depletion of the natural anti-oxidant glutathione and to safely improve disease activity in a double-blind placebo-controlled pilot study.
Due to the variety of symptoms and organ system involvement with SLE, its severity in an individual must be assessed in order to successfully treat SLE. Mild or remittent disease may, sometimes, be safely left untreated. If required, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and antimalarials may be used. Medications such as Prednisone, Cellcept and Prograf have been used in the past. A number of potential treatments are in clinical trials.
- Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are used preventively to reduce the incidence of flares, the process of the disease, and lower the need for steroid use; when flares occur, they are treated with corticosteroids. DMARDs commonly in use are antimalarials such as Plaquenil and immunosuppressants (e.g. methotrexate and azathioprine). Plaquenil (hydroxychloroquine) is an FDA-approved antimalarial used for constitutional, cutaneous, and articular manifestations. Hydroxychloroquine has relatively few side effects, and there is evidence that it improves survival among people who have SLE. Cyclophosphamide is used for severe glomerulonephritis or other organ-damaging complications. Mycophenolic acid is also used for treatment of lupus nephritis, but it is not FDA-approved for this indication, and FDA is investigating reports that it may be associated with birth defects when used by pregnant women.
- In more severe cases, medications that modulate the immune system (primarily corticosteroids and immunosuppressants) are used to control the disease and prevent recurrence of symptoms (known as flares). Depending on the dosage, people who require steroids may develop Cushing’s syndrome, symptoms of which may include obesity, puffy round face, diabetes mellitus, increased appetite, difficulty sleeping and osteoporosis. These may subside if and when the large initial dosage is reduced, but long-term use of even low doses can cause elevated blood pressure and cataracts.
- Numerous new immunosuppressive drugs are being actively tested for SLE. Rather than suppressing the immune system nonspecifically, as corticosteroids do, they target the responses of individual [types of] immune cells. Some of these drugs are already FDA-approved for treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. See also Belimumab and Atacicept. Lupuzor has given encouraging results in a phase IIb trial.
- Since a large percentage of people with SLE suffer from varying amounts of chronic pain, stronger prescription analgesics (pain killers) may be used if over-the-counter drugs (mainly nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) do not provide effective relief. Potent NSAIDs such as indomethacin and diclofenac are relatively contraindicated for patients with SLE because they increase the risk of kidney failure and heart failure.
- Moderate pain is typically treated with mild prescription opiates such as dextropropoxyphene and co-codamol. Moderate to severe chronic pain is treated with stronger opioids, such as hydrocodone or longer-acting continuous-release opioids, such as oxycodone, MS Contin, or methadone. The fentanyl duragesic transdermal patch is also a widely used treatment option for the chronic pain caused by complications because of its long-acting timed release and ease of use. When opioids are used for prolonged periods, drug tolerance, chemical dependency, and addiction may occur. Opiate addiction is not typically a concern, since the condition is not likely to ever completely disappear. Thus, lifelong treatment with opioids is fairly common for chronic pain symptoms, accompanied by periodic titration that is typical of any long-term opioid regimen.
- Intravenous immunoglobulins may be used to control SLE with organ involvement, or vasculitis. It is believed that they reduce antibody production or promote the clearance of immune complexes from the body, even though their mechanism of action is not well-understood. Unlike immunosuppressives and corticosteroids, IVIGs do not suppress the immune system, so there is less risk of serious infections with these drugs.
- Avoiding sunlight is the primary change to the lifestyle of SLE sufferers, as sunlight is known to exacerbate the disease, as is the debilitating effect of intense fatigue. These two problems can lead to patients becoming housebound for long periods of time. Drugs unrelated to SLE should be prescribed only when known not to exacerbate the disease. Occupational exposure to silica, pesticides and mercury can also make the disease worsen.
- Renal transplants are the treatment of choice for end-stage renal disease, which is one of the complications of lupus nephritis, but the recurrence of the full disease is common in up to 30% of patients.