What is lupus, how to treat it and advances in diagnosis

NORTH PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Millions of Americans have lupus. Right now, there's no cause or cure for it. However, doctors are getting closer to understanding it, and there new tools for controlling it.

"Any problem with the medications?" the doctor asks Keri Mitchell of Frankford.

Mitchell was fortunate. Her lupus was diagnosed before she had symptoms.

"I do have a family history. And when the tests came back, it showed I was positive," she explains.

For most lupus sufferers, it takes three years or more to get a diagnose.

Rheumatologist Dr. Roberto Caricchio of Temple Health says lupus is a chronic auto-immune disease.

"The immune system mistakenly attacks itself," says Dr. Caricchio.

It can attack organs such as the kidneys, lungs, heart, or brain, but also the joints or skin.

In fact, one hallmark symptom is a butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose.

Extreme fatigue, headaches, and painful swollen joints are some common signs.

Anyone can develop lupus, however, 90 percent of sufferers are women.

And women of color, like Keri, are two to three times more likely.

"There is a genetic predisposition," the Dr. Caricchio says.

But, he cautions, environmental factors, like the sun, also play a role in aggravating symptoms.

He says treatments to quiet the immune system are better than ever.

One widely-used drug, hydroxychloroquine, sold under the brand name Plaquenil, was originally approved for malaria.

And, "Recently, we have a medication that is called belimumab, which is actually the only medication that has been approved by the FDA in the last 50 years.," he says.

Keri says medication and lifestyle changes give her a good prognosis.

"Stress is a big factor for a flareup, so I don't try to stress myself. Try to eat better and sleep good," she says.

Dr. Caricchio says that to head off kidney problems, the most common impact of lupus, it's important patients have a team of rheumatologists AND kidney specialists who meet regularly on each person's case.
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