Debilitating. Destructive. Life-altering. These are just a few words used to describe autoimmune disease. Autoimmune diseases affect women 8 times more often than men, with lupus being one of the most disruptive. Lupus is a disease that occurs when a person's immune system attacks its own tissues and organs instead of attacking foreign invaders such as common viruses and bacteria. Lupus often results in wide-spread inflammation, pain, swelling and organ/tissue damage throughout the body.
Studies have examined gender differences in lupus but none have produced any definitive answers. "It is well known that many autoimmune diseases such as lupus and Sjogren's syndrome more commonly affect women," said Richard Furie, MD, Director of the Systemic Lupus Erythematosus and Autoimmune Disease Treatment Center at North Shore-LIJ Health System in Lake Success, New York. "There is a lot of conjecture as to why this occurs, but the bottom line is that no one knows."
Some experts believe that certain people are born with genes that make them more vulnerable to developing autoimmune diseases. Over the course of their lives, a number of different triggers can spark the disease such as viruses, infections, etc. Specific diseases may be triggered in one person but not another, leaving even more speculation about the underlying cause.
According to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, 90 percent of adults with lupus are women between the ages of 15 to 45. Along with gender discrepancies, there are cultural and racial discrepancies as well. African-American women are three times more likely to develop lupus when compared to Caucasian women. Lupus is also more common among women with Latina, Asian and Native American origins. African-American and Latina women tend to get lupus at earlier ages and suffer from more severe symptoms.
The course of the disease varies tremendously from person to person. For many individuals, lupus is mild; for others, it can be severe. Symptoms may arise suddenly or develop over a long period of time. A majority of lupus patients have flares: episodic disease or periods of time when symptoms appear, worsen, then improve and possibly, disappear.
The various signs and symptoms of lupus include:
•Joint stiffness, pain and swelling
•Butterfly-shaped rash (or malar rash) on the face that often covers the nose and cheeks
•Skin lesions that can worsen in sunlight
•Shortness of breath
•Raynaud's phenomena: extremities turn white and/or blue when exposed to stress or cold weather
•Anxiety and/or depression
"Lupus is diagnosed the old-fashioned way, using primitive tools such as medical history and physical exam," said Furie. "The third component is the laboratory. Certain tests can detect autoantibodies that are found in lupus, such as ANA, DNA, SSA, SSB, Sm, and RNP. Making a diagnosis requires a physician to utilize clues from all three components of the interaction."
Although some symptoms are vague, if a person experiences fatigue, chronic fever, unexplained rash and persistent joint pain, it is advised to visit your healthcare provider. All too often, women suffer for extended periods of time from symptoms of an autoimmune disease without receiving a proper diagnosis. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of autoimmune diseases can lead to better healthcare for women.
North Shore-LIJ Health System