You’ve been feeling tired, your joints ache and your fingertips have been turning white since the mercury dipped. You’ve been wondering if this mysterious combination of symptoms is lupus. But you’ve heard that it’s a disease that mainly strikes younger women.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease where the body mistakenly attacks its own tissue, causing pain and inflammation. More than 1.5 million Americans are affected. And while it’s true that most newly diagnosed patients are women ages 15 to 44, men, older women and children are also affected. About 15 percent of lupus patients are diagnosed after age 55, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Late-onset lupus is eight times more common in women than men.
Lupus is often confused with other conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis and Lyme disease, because their symptoms are so similar. You may have lupus if you experience headaches, fatigue, painful or inflamed joints, swollen hands or feet, anemia, fever, pain in the chest when you take deep breaths, hair loss, a butterfly-shaped rash on your face or Raynaud’s phenomenon (fingers turning blue or white in cold weather). Sometimes it takes years to get an accurate diagnosis because no single test proves that someone has the disease.
There are a few risk factors for lupus. About 90 percent of patients are women. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans are more likely to get the disease, as are people with a family history of lupus. Lupus patients are most commonly treated by rheumatologists (joint and muscle specialists) because the disease mainly affects the joints. However, lupus can affect the skin, nervous system, heart or other organs, so patients may see an array of doctors such as dermatologists, neurologists or cardiologists.
Physicians prescribe various medications to help lupus patients suppress their body’s overactive immune system; control pain and inflammation; and reduce the number of flare-ups.
Sometimes older patients get medication-induced lupus. Unlike the most common variety of the disease, known as systemic lupus erythematosus, drug-induced lupus is a milder form of the disease. It often disappears when a patient stops taking the offending medication.