What Black Women Should Know About Lupus

Do You or Someone You Know Have Signs of Lupus?

Lupus is a serious health problem that affects mainly young women. The disease often starts between the ages of 15 and 44.

People of all races may get lupus. However, lupus is three times more common in black women than in white women.

As many as 1 in 250 young black women will get the disease.

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a disease that can affect many parts of the body. It can affect the joints, the skin, the kidneys, the lungs, the heart, or the brain. Only a few of these parts of the body are affected in most people.

Something goes wrong with the body's immune system in lupus. We can think of the immune system as an army within the body with hundreds of defenders (known as antibodies).

They defend the body from attack by germs and viruses. In lupus, however, the immune system becomes overactive and goes out of control. The antibodies attack healthy tissues in the body. This attack induces inflammation, causing redness, pain, and swelling in the affected parts of the body. This tendency for the immune system to become overactive may run in families.

What Does a Person With Lupus Look Like?

Many people with lupus look healthy.

What Are the Signs of Lupus?

The signs of lupus differ from one person to another. Some people have just a few signs of the disease; others have more. Lupus may be hard to diagnose. It is often mistaken for other diseases. For this reason, lupus has often been called the "great imitator."

Common Signs of Lupus Are:

  • Red rash or color change on the face, often in the shape of a butterfly across the bridge of the nose and the cheeks
  • Painful or swollen joints
  • Unexplained fever
  • Chest pain with breathing
  • Unusual loss of hair
  • Pale or purple fingers or toes from cold or stress
  • Sensitivity to the sun
  • Low blood count

These signs are more important when they occur together.

Other signs of lupus can include mouth sores, unexplained "fits" or convulsions, hallucinations or depression, repeated miscarriages, and unexplained kidney problems.

What Causes Lupus?

We don't know what causes the immune system to become overactive. In some people, lupus becomes active after exposure to sunlight, infections, or certain medications.

Can You Catch Lupus From Someone Else?

No, lupus is not catching. You can't give it to someone else. Also, it is not a form of cancer. It is not AIDS.

Does Lupus Run in Families?

Most relatives of lupus patients do not develop the disease, but in some families more than one member gets lupus. If a relative of a lupus patient develops signs of lupus, she or he should see a doctor.

How Serious Is Lupus?

Signs of lupus tend to come and go. There are times when the disease quiets down, or goes into remission. At other times, lupus flares up, or becomes active. Years ago many people with lupus died. Now with good medical care most people with the disease can lead active, productive, and fulfilling lives.

Are There Different Kinds of Lupus?

There are three major types of lupus: (1) lupus that affects certain parts of the body (systemic lupus erythematosus), (2) lupus mainly of the skin (discoid or cutaneous lupus), and (3) lupus caused by medicine (drug-induced lupus).

Systemic lupus erythematosus, sometimes called SLE, is the most serious form of the disease. This type of lupus is the focus of this booklet. Systemic means that it may affect many parts of the body, such as the joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, heart, or the brain. This type of lupus can be mild or serious. If it is not treated, systemic lupus can cause damage to the organs inside your body.

Discoid and cutaneous lupus mainly affect the skin. The person may have a red rash or a color change of the skin on the face, scalp, or other parts of the body.

Drug-induced lupus is caused by a small number of prescription medications. The person with drug-induced lupus may have the same symptoms as the person with systemic lupus, but it is usually less serious. Usually when the medicine is stopped, the disease goes away. The most common drugs that can cause lupus are (1) procainamide used for heart problems, (2) hydralazine used for high blood pressure, and (3) dilantin used for seizures. Drug-induced lupus is usually found in older men and women of all races.

Does Sunlight Cause Lupus?

In some people, no matter what shade of skin, an attack of lupus may be brought on by being in the sun, even for a short period of time.

Do Men Get Lupus?

Yes, men get all forms of lupus. However, 9 out of 10 people who have lupus are women.

Why Is Lupus More Common in Black Women Than in White Women?

We do not know why the disease is more common in black women. However, research doctors supported by the National Institutes of Health are studying this problem. Researchers are studying why minorities are more inclined to get lupus, what causes it to start, and why is it mild in some and severe in others. Other researchers are studying why the signs of lupus differ between black women and white women.

What Should You Do if You Think You Have Lupus?

You should see a doctor or a nurse and be examined and tested for lupus. She or he will talk to you and take a history of your health problems. Many people have lupus for a long time before it is detected. It is important that you tell the doctor or nurse about your symptoms.

How Is Lupus Treated?

The doctor may treat each lupus patient in a different way because the signs of lupus often differ from one person to another. The doctor may give aspirin or similar medicine to treat the painful, swollen joints and the fever. Creams may be prescribed for the rash, and stronger medicines prescribed for more serious problems.

Is There a Cure for Lupus?

At this point, lupus cannot be cured. However, in many cases, signs of the disease can be relieved. The good news is that with the correct medicine and by taking care of themselves, most lupus patients can hold a job, have children, and lead a full life.

Outlook

The outlook for lupus patients has greatly improved. Research doctors supported by the National Institutes of Health are studying many aspects of lupus, such as what goes wrong with the immune system, why the disease runs in families, how lupus causes damage in the body, and why it can lead to repeated miscarriages. Others are researching why lupus is so much more common in women, especially black women. Researchers have learned a great deal about lupus and are studying new ways to treat and, ultimately, prevent the disease. The future holds great promise for improving the health of all Americans who have lupus.


Source: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, National Institutes of Health, June 1994



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