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What women need to know about lupus

Kristen Fischer is a writer living at the Jersey Shore. In addition to writing for SheKnows, she has penned articles for Prevention, Health, Woman's Day, BELLA, and New Jersey Monthly. Kristen enjoys spending time with her family, friend...

Lupus affects more women than men — here's what to look for

Actress/singer Selena Gomez announced recently that she has lupus.

More: Selena Gomez's lupus confession should remind us not to judge others

“I was diagnosed with [autoimmune disease] lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy. That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke," Gomez said in an interview with Billboard. “I wanted so badly to say, ‘You guys have no idea. I’m in chemotherapy. You’re assholes.' But I was angry I even felt the need to say that. It’s awful walking into a restaurant and having the whole room look at you, knowing what they’re saying. I locked myself away until I was confident and comfortable again.”

Her celebrity aside, many of us are wondering about the disease... and if we could get it, too!

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects 1.5 million Americans and the cause is unknown. It is not contagious nor sexually transmitted. When you have the disease, your own antibodies attack and destroy healthy tissue in the skin, joints and internal organs. The disease flares up from time to time, but it is possible for it to go into remission. Experts think that hormones and genetics are contributors to the disease.

Most people with lupus — 90 percent of them, in fact — are female. Most women first show signs when they are between 15 and 44. Males tend to develop it when they are under 18 or over 50. About 5,000 to 10,000 people with lupus receive their diagnosis when they are under the age of 18, according to the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation based in New York City.

Who gets lupus?

African-American women are three times more likely than Caucasian women to get lupus and develop severe symptoms. About 1 in every 250 African-American women will be affected with severe symptoms. Lupus is two times more prevalent in Asian-American and Latina women than it is in Caucasian women. Native American women are also disproportionately affected, developing it more commonly than Caucasians.

What does lupus feel like?

Symptoms of lupus can be wide ranging. Some people do not experience all of these symptoms, while others experience them all at once as part of a flare-up.

Symptoms can include the following:

  • Swollen, stiff and painful joints
  • Fever over 100 degrees F
  • Fatigue
  • Rashes on the skin and/or sensitivity to the sun
  • Swelling around the ankles
  • Chest pain with deep breaths
  • Unusual hair loss
  • Pale or purple fingers from cold or stress
  • Mouth ulcers, often painless

Diagnosing and treating lupus

Lupus can be tough to diagnose because there’s no one-size-fits-all test. A combination of blood and urine tests, along with an exam and review of symptoms, typically leads to a diagnosis.

As far as treatments go, not everyone needs chemotherapy as the 23-year-old actress/singer underwent. Chemotherapy is used to treat the disease with immunosuppressants that are sometimes used in cancer treatment. The disease is not linked to cancer, however.

“Treatment for lupus varies from patient to patient,” Dr. Bonnie Bermas, director of the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Lupus Center, told Hollywood Life. “Some patients, depending on their manifestations, can be treated with chemotherapy either by pill form or intravenously.”

Bermas said chemotherapy treatment is used if the lupus is affecting the kidneys and or the central nervous system. The dose of chemotherapy is lower than a cancer patient would receive, and the length of therapy is typically shorter, she added.

More: Selena Gomez's lupus confession should remind us not to judge others

According to Mayo Clinic, treatments can include non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs such as naproxen sodium or ibuprofen. Antimalarial drugs, corticosteroids and immunosuppressants are other classes of drugs that can be used to treat the disease.

A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this year found that women with lupus can have successful pregnancies. It is commonly responsible for complications in pregnancy, as well as infections, cancer and bone tissue destruction.

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