Steroids Synthetic cortisone medications are some of the most effective treatments for reducing the swelling, warmth, pain, and tenderness associated with the inflammation of lupus. Cortisone usually works quickly to relieve these symptoms. However, cortisone can also cause many unwelcome side effects, so it is usually prescribed only when other medications—specifically NSAIDs and anti-malarials—are not sufficient enough to control lupus.
Other drugs used to treat lupus include the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which modulates the immune system, and belimumab, a targeted drug that is a biologic (meaning it’s made from natural sources). Some chemotherapy drugs and anti-rejection drugs may be used, too, to treat patients with lupus nephritis or other organ problems, says Caricchio.
Pain is typically treated with opioids, varying in potency based on the severity of symptoms. When opioids are used for prolonged periods, drug tolerance, chemical dependency, and addiction may occur. Opiate addiction is not typically a concern since the condition is not likely to ever completely disappear. Thus, lifelong treatment with opioids is fairly common for chronic pain symptoms, accompanied by periodic titration that is typical of any long-term opioid regimen.
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.
The most serious health risks are cardiovascular disease, kidney disease and stroke. Specifically, people with lupus are at increased risk for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In some people, inflammation can occur in the heart itself (myocarditis and endocarditis) or the membrane that surrounds it. Endocarditis can damage heart valves, which can result in heart murmurs. When the disease affects the kidneys, patients generally require intensive drug treatment to prevent permanent damage. Lupus also may attack the brain or central nervous system, which can cause seizures or stroke.
Avoid calcium supplements, however, which Johns Hopkins researchers have found to potentially increase the risk of heart damage and arterial plaque buildup. “Due to the risk of accelerated atherosclerosis in lupus, we no longer recommend calcium supplementation and encourage a diet rich in calcium instead,” noted George Stojan, MD, a rheumatologist and assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins.
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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