Autoimmune illness is often unrecognised

DO your joints chronically ache? Are you always tired for no real reason? Does your skin come out in mysterious rashes? 

There might, of course, be very simple explanations for all of these things. But there is also a chance that you could have lupus, an autoimmune disease — whereby the immune system attacks healthy cells, tissue and organs.

Despite the fact that lupus is much more common than more publicised diseases like leukaemia or multiple sclerosis, it remains relatively unrecognised by both the general public and medical professionals.

Why is lupus so misunderstood? Experts often refer to Lupus as a great ‘mimic’, causing symptoms like fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain and swelling, all problems shared with a number of other conditions, meaning it can be hard to pinpoint the true cause. People tend to suffer various combinations of these symptoms too, and there is no real ’check-list’ of a standard case.

There are also different types of lupus — from the milder discoid lupus erythematosus, or DLE — to the more serious systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE. DLE tends to only affect the skin, while SLE can target any tissue in any part of the body.

What should we look out for? Again, because of the nature of lupus, the signs will vary both in range and severity, in each case. Lupus works in patterns too, so symptoms often come in ‘episodes’ then may subside again for a while. But generally, the symptoms can be categorised as: Joint pain, unexplained fever, swollen joints, prolonged or extreme fatigue, skin rash, particularly a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose, depression and anxiety.

What happens if you don’t get a quick diagnosis? The longer you wait for a diagnosis — and hence also for treatment — the more damage is being done to your body; damage which, in the case of lupus, can be irreparable. This damage will be worse if the patient has SLE Lupus, not DLE. With SLE, lack of diagnosis can lead to potentially life-threatening complications like kidney failure, heart and cardiovascular disease, lung damage or stroke. Undiagnosed SLE can also raise the risk of pre-eclampsia, miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth.

What if you are diagnosed? Medicines like steroids and immunosuppressants mean the disease can be controlled, and there’s no reason for sufferers not to lead a normal life, with a normal lifespan. Recent studies show the 15-year-survival rate is now around 85%.

Some facts about lupus: Lupus is when the immune system releases far too many antibodies into the bloodstream, causing reactions that lead to inflammation. It affects more women than men — about 90% of lupus patients are women — and is often triggered by hormonal changes after childbirth, at the menopause or during puberty, usually between the ages of 15 and 55. The condition can also be triggered by a viral infection, though this is more rare. Like other autoimmune diseases, lupus is thought to have a genetic link and people affected by it may have relatives with other autoimmune conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis.

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