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Lupus Alert

You feel tired and have a sun-sensitive rash. Or you suffer joint pain and swelling and have trouble taking a deep breath. Do you write these off as minor complaints, or should you discuss them with your doctor?

It's smart to consult your doctor, say the experts. Such seemingly unrelated symptoms can be signs of a serious illness called lupus.

Most of the time, the disease can be treated easily. When lupus is suspected, patients can work with their doctor to confirm the diagnosis and then determine which of the available treatments will be most effective.

"With lupus, the immune system, designed to fight infection, makes a major error and starts to attack normal organs," says Michelle Petri, M.D., a member of the American College of Rheumatology.

Lupus - the full name of the disease is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - commonly targets the skin, the kidneys or the muscles surrounding joints, Dr. Petri says. Achy and swollen joints, fever, and prolonged fatigue are the most common symptoms.

Lupus can be treated

Once lupus is diagnosed, its symptoms can be treated. Bed rest can relieve fatigue. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen can counter joint pain. A medication called Plaquenil can relieve a number of the symptoms of lupus. Steroids and even medications used for chemotherapy may be needed in more severe cases, when the disease attacks particular organs.

Diagnosis is the tough part

Researchers know lupus strikes women more often than men. More than 90 percent of people in the United States with lupus are women of childbearing age (between 15 and 45). And it usually targets females of African American, Latin, Asian, or American Indian descent.

Lupus cannot be diagnosed by a single blood test. Doctors look for at least four out of eleven symptoms and signs to confirm the disease. Sounds simple, but lupus can present itself in different ways and can mimic other illnesses. It can take months or even years to diagnose.

Why is it called lupus?

The name comes from a Latin term for "wolf." It refers to the lesions on the nose and face that the sickness sometimes causes in serious cases. Early doctors who studied the disease thought the rash gave some patients a wolf-like appearance. But there are many different types of the illness, and the face is not always involved.

Talk with your doctor if some of these symptoms seem familiar to you. You don't have to wait for your doctor to bring up the subject before you talk about it.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, 1.5 million to 2 million Americans suffer from lupus. Most patients exhibit only a few of the following possible symptoms:

  • achy or swollen joints

  • fever

  • prolonged or extreme fatigue

  • skin rashes, especially across the cheeks and nose

  • anemia

  • kidney involvement

  • chest pain when breathing deeply

  • sun or light sensitivity

  • hair loss

  • fingers turning white and/or blue in the cold

  • seizures

  • mouth or nose ulcers