How is lupus treated?
There is no cure for lupus, but treatments have improved in recent years. The kind of treatment you will need will depend on what symptoms you have and how severe your symptoms are.
If you have joint pain, sore muscles, or skin problems such as a rash, your doctor may recommend that you take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (some brand names: Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (one brand name: Aleve). Medicine that is used to treat malaria, such as hydroxychloroquine, can also be helpful in treating symptoms of lupus and preventing flares. Some people have side effects from this kind of medicine, including problems with vision and muscle strength. Corticosteroids are another kind of medicine sometimes recommended to help with inflammation, but these medicines can have more serious side effects.
If you have signs or symptoms of lupus that cause problems in vital organs or the central nervous system (heart, brain and blood vessels), you will probably need stronger medicines. Stronger drugs also have the potential for more severe side-effects, and your doctor will want to monitor you closely. High-dose corticosteroids, such as prednisone, can be given by mouth or through a vein in your arm. Medicines that suppress the immune system (cyclophosphamide, azathioprine) are sometimes used to help manage severe symptoms of lupus. Both kinds of medicine can help control dangerous symptoms quickly and prevent more permanent damage. Sometimes they are used together so that the amount of each medicine is reduced. This may lessen the risk of side effects.
Because of the risk of side effects from medicines, your doctor may want you to stop taking certain drugs if your lupus symptoms go away for a time (into remission). However, even if you don’t have signs or symptoms, your lupus can cause problems later, like kidney disease and kidney failure, or atherosclerosis (build-up in the arteries) which can lead to heart attack or stroke. This is why it is important to maintain good health (quit smoking, reduce high blood pressure or cholesterol) and see your doctor regularly for check-ups.
What can I do to feel better and help prevent flares?
Get plenty of rest but also get regular exercise. Fatigue is a common symptom of lupus, so try to maintain good sleep habits at night and, if possible, nap during the day, as needed. Even though you won’t always feel like it, regular exercise will help you sleep better, as well as improve your mood and help with heart health. Try to avoid outside activities when you are having a flare. Exposure to the sun can make your symptoms worse.
Protect yourself from the sun. Wear clothing that covers as much of your skin as possible. Always use sunscreen, even if you are only going outside for a couple of minutes. Don’t use tanning beds. Also avoid fluorescent and halogen lighting wherever possible. The sun, tanning beds and fluorescent and halogen lights are all sources of ultraviolet light, which is known to trigger lupus symptoms.
Quit smoking (or don’t start). Lupus can affect your heart and blood vessels. If you also smoke, you are at a much higher risk for cardiovascular disease.
Eat a healthy diet. Although there are no foods that have been shown to cause flares, it’s best to avoid food that seems to make your symptoms worse. You may also need to make changes to your diet if lupus causes high blood pressure, stomach or kidney problems. Try to eat a balanced and nutritious diet, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
Take your medicine the way your doctor tells you to. Your doctor will explain the benefits and risks of your medicines. Depending on your symptoms and flares, you may need to make adjustments to the type of medicine you take, when you take it, and the dosage. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions.
Pay attention to your mental health. Paying attention to your emotional well-being will also help you cope and give you a sense of control. Living with lupus can mean learning to manage a number of different issues separate from the physical and medical problems the disease can cause. These might include the reactions of your family members or coworkers, children acting out (in fear or confusion), as well as your own feelings.
Develop a support network. You can get help from family, friends, neighbors, your family doctor, community services, counselors and support groups. This support network can help you with your physical needs. For example, the nurse at your doctor’s office can help you to organize your medicines, or your children and spouse can allow you time for an afternoon nap. You can also get emotional support from friends and family. They can offer you a safe place to talk about your frustrations or worries.
Stay mindful of your own level of pain and fatigue. This will help you keep realistic expectations about what you can and cannot do. It will also help you better communicate your needs to those around you.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff.
American Academy of Family Physicians