Understanding Lupus

Posted on Jun 05, 2017

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or lupus is a lifelong illness wherein the body's immune system, which is supposed to protect it from infection and disease, turns on itself and attacks the body's organs. It’s like when soldiers get confused and instead of going after the enemies, they attack the people they are supposed to protect. Lupus can involve the skin, muscles, bones and joints, blood, kidneys, lungs, brain, and even the heart. This may result in damage to the affected organs.


Lupus is more common in women, and the first symptoms are usually felt in their 20s to 30s. However, lupus can also affect men, the elderly, and even children. It is more widespread than most people think. It is therefore important to be aware of lupus and its symptoms.


What do you feel when you have lupus?

Lupus is challenging not just to patients but also to physicians. It is not very easy to diagnose because it can present in many different ways depending on the involved part of the body. The more common symptoms of lupus include achy or painful joints and muscles; unexplained fatigue, "parang low-batt;” fever without a known cause; rashes, especially across the cheeks and bridge of nose (usually caused by sun exposure); frequent mouth sores ("singaw"); excessive hair loss and even balding; paleness; swelling of area around the eyes and the legs; fingers that turn white/blue with cold exposure; or shortness of breath. One, some, or all of these may occur in people with lupus.


How do I know if I have lupus?

The diagnosis of lupus has improved greatly in the past decades due to several factors which include increased awareness of the condition, well-defined diagnostic criteria, and highly specific laboratory tests for the disease. If you know someone who has the symptoms mentioned above, encourage him/her to consult a rheumatologist (a specialist of lupus and other arthritis). If there is none in the area, it is good to consult internists, family practitioners, or other specialists who will guide you to the proper medical facility and practitioner. Blood tests, such as complete blood count (CBC), creatinine, anti-nuclear antibody (ANA); a urinalysis; and others will be requested, and the results will be interpreted along with the person's signs and symptoms. Sometimes it is difficult to diagnose lupus because it may have the same symptoms as with many other illnesses, therefore consulting a rheumatologist is the best thing to do.


Is there a cure for lupus?

Much like most other chronic illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes, there is no known cure for lupus. However, it can be managed and controlled. With proper treatment, patients with lupus have an excellent chance to live healthy and normal lives. There are medicines that are used to control the symptoms of lupus to make the patient feel well, and even induce remission, as if lupus is not there. These may be taken by mouth or can be injected, and will be prescribed by the doctor once a diagnosis of lupus is made. It is important to avoid self-medicating and use of unprescribed “medicines” or “herbals” that may potentially do more harm than good.


What else can I do to help avoid lupus symptoms and complications?

If you are already diagnosed with lupus, practice sun protection. Try to stay out of the sun, use an umbrella, and apply sunscreen with at least SPF 30. There is something about the ultraviolet rays of the sun that causes damage to the cells and can lead to a flare of lupus symptoms. Note that this happens ONLY in people with lupus.


Since you will be hiding from sunlight and will most probably have at least some steroids in your medicine list, taking adequate calcium and vitamin D, either naturally through food intake or supplements, is recommended. Try to get a good number of hours of sleep at night. Try to avoid stressful environments. Stress has been found to worsen lupus symptoms and trigger flares.


What else can I do to cope and live with lupus?


Support for people with lupus is very important. Ask your rheumatologist for any "lupus club" in your vicinity. There are several in the country, and these exist to create awareness of the disease, provide social support, and impart tips for self-help and even livelihood programs -- for people living with lupus. You may also join and volunteer for Hope for Lupus activities, or simply like and follow their Facebook, Instagram or Twitter pages. To know more about lupus and how to cope, the book Living with Lupus will be available by July 2017.


St. Luke’s Medical Center-Global City has a Rheumatology, Allergy and Immunology (RAI) Center which addresses the diagnosis, treatment, and management of a wide range of rheumatologic and immunologic conditions. It is staffed by local and international board-certified rheumatologists, allergologists, and immunologists with individual expertise on specific diseases under this extensive field. For more information, contact the St. Luke’s-Global City RAI Center at 789-7700 ext. 2103.    


Dr. Geraldine Zamora-Racaza was awarded as the Ten Outstanding Young Men and Women (TOYM) for Medicine in 2016. She was a class valedictorian of the University of the Philippines College of Medicine and now serves her alma mater as a Clinical Associate Professor. She is part of the Internal Medicine Residency Training Committee of St. Luke’s Medical Center-Global City. She is also a board member of the Sagip Buhay Medical Foundation, Inc., the Vice-President of Hope for Lupus Foundation, Inc., and co-author of the book, Living with Lupus, soon to be available in bookstores in the Philippines.