There is no single test to definitively diagnose lupus, and it could take months or even years to be sure. Typically, your doctor will conduct a complete medical history and physical exam, including blood tests. The doctor may also perform skin and kidney biopsies (extracting tissue samples that are then examined under a microscope) to make a diagnosis.
However, the mainstays of treatment are corticosteroids such as prednisone (Deltasone), hydrocortisone, methylprednisolone (Medrol), and dexamethasone (Decadron, Hexadrol). These drugs heavily suppress inflammation but can cause short-term side effects including swelling, increased appetite, and weight gain and long-term side effects including stretch marks on the skin, weakened or damaged bones, high blood pressure, damage to the arteries, diabetes, infections, and cataracts.
Antimalarials are another type of drug commonly used to treat lupus. These drugs prevent and treat malaria, but doctors have found that they also are useful for lupus. A common antimalarial used to treat lupus is hydroxychloroquine. It may be used alone or in combination with other drugs and generally is used to treat fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and inflammation of the lungs. Clinical studies have found that continuous treatment with antimalarials may prevent flares from recurring.
Opportunistic infections can develop, most often in patients receiving chronic immunosuppressive therapy. Another less-common complication is osteonecrosis, especially of the hips and knees after prolonged high-dose corticosteroid usage. More commonly, premature atherosclerotic disease and myocardial infarction are indolent complications of chronic inflammation and steroids.
Certain foods, including garlic and alfalfa sprouts, should be avoided by people with lupus. [For a more complete list of items to be avoided, please see the article “Things to Avoided” in the Lupus 101 section.] Recently controversy has also arisen over whether aspartame induces lupus. However, scientists have concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that aspartame causes lupus.
For some patients whose kidneys or central nervous systems are affected by lupus, a type of drug called an immunosuppressive may be used. Immunosuppressives, such as cyclophosphamide and mycophenolate mofetil, restrain the overactive immune system by blocking the production of immune cells. These drugs may be given by mouth or by IV infusion. The risk for side effects increases with the length of treatment.
Most autoimmune diseases affect one specific system. For example, Rheumatoid Arthritis involves the joints, and Multiple Sclerosis affects the brain and spinal cord. Lupus, on the other hand, affects more than one system simultaneously. No matter what organ or system is being attacked, all autoimmune diseases are similar in that they are an immune response caused by systemic inflammation that leads your body to attack itself.
Infections and diseases of the cardiovascular, renal, pulmonary, and central nervous systems are the most frequent causes of death in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus.8,23,32–37 Since the 1950s, the five-year survival rate for patients with systemic lupus erythematosus has increased from 50 percent to a range of 91 to 97 percent.8,23,32–34,38,39 It is not known how much of this increase in survival is due to improved management versus diagnosis of earlier and milder disease. Higher mortality rates are associated with seizures, lupus nephritis, and azotemia.36,37,40
For instance, a dermatologist for cutaneous lupus (skin disease), a cardiologist for heart disease, a nephrologist for kidney disease, a neurologist for brain and nervous system disease, or a gastroenterologist for gastrointestinal tract disease. A woman with lupus who is considering a pregnancy needs an obstetrician who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.
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