Dr Miriam Stoppard on Lupus – the rare disease that goes more than skin deep


Lupus isn’t that common but when it strikes it can be very ­serious, even life-threatening. The story of the singer and ­actress Selena Gomez is a case in point.

All lupus sufferers will be grateful to her because she’s increased awareness of this often neglected condition.

Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE), is a disease that causes collagen inflammation. As collagen provides the scaffolding for all our organs it can show up anywhere.

Lupus affects the skin, mainly the face, but it has much deeper ­implications. It can affect major organs including the kidneys, and in 2017 Gomez announced she’d had a kidney transplant because of it.

Courageously telling her story has highlighted the condition and how it can affect lives, and even shorten them.

Selena in hospital after the operation and with her donor friend Francia Raisa
Selena in hospital after the operation and with her donor friend Francia Raisa

It affects around 1 in 1,000 people in the UK and is six times more common in women than men, typically ­developing between the ages of 20 and 50.

It’s an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body’s immune system turns on itself and starts to attack and destroy healthy cells in the body.

Selena had the transplant in 2017 and her story put the disease in the spotlight
Selena had the transplant in 2017 and her story put the disease in the spotlight

Lupus symptoms vary hugely between sufferers because different organs can be affected in different people, ranging from mild and ­intermittent to severe and life-threatening.

Many feel fatigue, ­experience weight loss and a mildly raised temperature, while the condition tends to fluctuate between attacks though we don’t know why. Symptoms are so variable it can be painfully slow to get a diagnosis if it’s not referred to a dermatologist.

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Sensitivity to sunlight is a common complaint of sufferers as is the bright red rash over the cheeks and nose known as the “butterfly rash”. Joint pains resembling rheumatoid arthritis that “flit” from joint to joint are common and are worse first thing in the morning.

1 in 1,000 in the UK will develop lupus, like Selena, pictured, and it is six times more common in women than men
1 in 1,000 in the UK will develop lupus, like Selena, and it’s six times more common in women than men

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If lupus progresses there may be damage to the heart, kidneys, lungs or brain. No wonder depression and anxiety are common too.

For lupus sufferers, the immune system forms a specific antibody which can be picked up through blood tests.

Currently there’s no cure but it can be controlled with medication and most people lead active, normal lives. Treatment includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, steroids and immunosuppressants.

Quite often lupus “burns itself out” and attacks become less frequent and less severe.

he good news is most severe problems develop in the first 10 years and if they haven’t by then they rarely do after that.





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