Lupus: What it is and why you need to know if you’re a woman

You’ve probably never heard of this disease that affects at least 5 million people worldwide, and if you did, it’s probably only because Selena Gomez recently contracted Lupus in 2015 which required her to go for a kidney transplant. Sadly, you are not alone. A study done in America showed that 72% of Americans (aged 18-34) either do not know anything about Lupus or have never heard of it before. For Selena, Lupus got to a point where it was life threatening; but it doesn’t have to be for you if you know what it is and what to look out for.

So,  what is Lupus exactly?

There are multiple types of Lupus, with the most common and most serious type of Lupus being SLE. Scientifically known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), SLE is an autoimmune disease which causes your body’s immune system to go into overdrive. A regular immune system fights against antigens ranging from your regular cold virus to bacteria. What Lupus does, is that it causes the immune system to attack both antigens (which is bad for your health) and healthy tissue.

Lupus can manifest itself onto any body part of yours, from joints to skin and many other internal organs. This could result in non-life-threatening symptoms like rashes or life-threatening symptoms like kidney failure in the case of Selena Gomez.

Why does this concern me if I’m a woman?

90% of those diagnosed with Lupus are females. This led doctors to think that the estrogen hormone might either be a trigger for Lupus or make Lupus worse, as estrogen helps make a woman’s immune system stronger than her male counterparts. While men make estrogen too, the levels at which women produce estrogen at are a lot higher.

Estrogen is also the hormone that is responsible for the regulation of the female reproductive system, where it helps to produce an environment that is suitable for the fertilisation and implantation of an embryo. This likely also explains why majority of the sufferers of Lupus tend to fall within the age of 15-45 years old, where they are of a reproductive age.

What causes Lupus then?

Till date, no one knows what causes Lupus exactly. However, doctors think that on top of hormones like estrogen which was mentioned above, genetics and environmental factors might play a part too. As such, you are more likely to suffer from Lupus if the following applies to you:

  • You are a female
  • You are aged 15-45 years old
  • You have Asian, African, Latino/Hispanic, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander or Native American genes
    • These ethnic groups tend to share common genes which may make them more susceptible to Lupus.
  • Someone in your family suffers from Lupus
    • You have a higher chance (between 4% to 13%) of getting Lupus as you would be sharing common genes with your family
  • You are regularly exposed to toxins like cigarette smoke, mercury and silica
    • There hasn’t been any proof that links Lupus directly to these toxins (as are the rest), but doctors suspect that it is a possibility
  • You are under a lot of stress
    • Stress has been known to trigger a Lupus relapse for those who are already diagnosed with the disease, but some sufferers of Lupus reported experiencing something very stressful just before their first Lupus episode. This may come in the form of a death of a close one, a divorce and more.

How would I know if I have Lupus?

The symptoms of Lupus may differ across everyone, depending on which part of your body is affected by Lupus. That said, here are some of the most common symptoms of Lupus:

  • Hair loss that is out of the norm, and it tends to come and go
  • Mild to extreme fatigue
  • Issues with skin, in the form of rashes, red spots or sores
  • On-and-off fevers that occur for no reason
  • Arthritis (aches in joints)
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon (white/purple fingers and toes)

It should be noted that having some or all the symptoms does not guarantee that you have Lupus. To be safe, visit the doctor for a proper diagnosis.

If I have Lupus, other than taking my medications, what can I do?

Lupus symptoms tend to come and go, so even if you are diagnosed with Lupus, it does not mean that you can’t do what you used to do. That said, to make things easier for yourself and make the symptoms more controllable, here are some tips:

  • Avoid smoking
    • Cigarette smoke has been found to trigger or worsen Lupus relapses in people, while also negatively affecting your heart, lungs, and stomach.
  • Exercise
    • Exercising is a great stress reliever, and stress is one of the trigger factors for a Lupus relapse. On top of that, low-impact exercises like walking and cycling can also help to lower your risk of being vulnerable to osteoporosis.
  • Avoid being under the sun
    • Ultraviolet rays are also a trigger for Lupus relapses. If you must be under the sun, be sure to cover yourself in SPF 50 or higher sun screen to protect yourself.
  • Eat healthily
    • It is likely that the medication you take for Lupus might have certain side effects, with the most common being an increase in appetite and thinning of bones. As such, be sure to consume foods rich in calcium and vitamin D to prevent fractures. Also try to limit your saturated and trans fat intake as the increase in appetite might cause you to gain weight very quickly.
  • Limit your alcohol intake
    • Alcohol may also have a reaction with the medication that you take, either reducing its effectiveness or even causing stomach bleeding/ulcers.
  • Keep a journal
    • As mentioned before, Lupus affects everyone in many ways. It is thus important to keep a journal of what triggers a Lupus relapse for you and find ways to work around it.

If you are interested to help out after knowing how serious Lupus can be, or want to be part of a community, you can head on over to Lupus Association (Singapore) to find out more.

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Jia Qi Chua

An introvert that can be bribed with free food or a fluffy corgi/pomeranian. Will squish anything that looks soft. Also likes to roll around in bed.

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