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When you have a question or are curious about an illness or recent diagnosis, you very likely turn to the Internet to learn more about it. Even doctors use the reputable online resources to find health-related information - with more than 60,000 identified illnesses, it's impossible to know everything about every illness, even if you went to medical school.

In 2015, many of us used the Internet as a tool for answering our health questions. One of the most popular questions people search for included, "What is lupus?"

"Lupus, which is short for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect many different body systems," said family medicine physician Cassandra Tunis, DO, Geisinger Pittston. "Depending on its severity, lupus can impact your skin, joints, blood cells, kidneys, nervous system, heart, brain and lungs."

With lupus, the immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, causing pain, inflammation, swelling and damage. Lupus symptoms can also include joint pain, fever, fatigue and a lupus rash.

"Lupus is notorious for being difficult to diagnose, often being confused with rheumatoid arthritis," Dr. Tunis said. Another reason it can be difficult to diagnose is because lupus symptoms vary widely from person to person.

Additionally, how and when symptoms develop further complicates coming to a diagnosis.

"Lupus symptoms can come on suddenly or develop slowly. They can be mild or severe, temporary or permanent," Dr. Tunis said. "Most people with lupus have a mild form of the disease, which is known for flare ups, when the symptoms get worse for a time and then improve or disappear completely."

But one of its most distinctive signs of the disease is the rash.

"In some cases of lupus, the patient develops a facial rash that resembles butterfly wings across both cheeks," Dr. Tunis said, adding that this symptom occurs in many, but not all cases of lupus.

The exact cause of lupus is unknown.

"We believe that whether a person develops lupus is based on a combination of genetics and the environment," Dr. Tunis said. People with an inherited predisposition for the disease may develop lupus when they come into contact with a trigger, such as certain medicines, chemicals, tobacco smoke, sunlight and certain infections.

With many illnesses and diseases, once you come upon a diagnosis, treatment can begin. However, with lupus, it's a different path to feel better.

"Unfortunately, there's no cure for lupus," Dr. Tunis said. "But there are treatments and lifestyle changes that help treat and manage the symptoms."

These treatments and changes can ease symptoms, bring down the inflammation, prevent and relieve flares, and, possibly most importantly, prevent organ damage and other health issues.

"The medicines we most commonly use to control lupus include over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antimalarial drugs, corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants," Dr. Tunis said.

NSAIDs may treat the pain, swelling and fever that come with lupus. Antimalarial drugs are most often used to treat malaria, but can also help control lupus. Prednisone and other types of corticosteroids can help counteract lupus inflammation, but carry a list of long-term side effects. In serious cases of lupus, immunosuppressants, which suppress the immune system, may be helpful.

And there are other ways to treat and manage lupus.

"There's a whole host of relatively simple measures that can be taken each and every day to prevent or ease lupus flares," Dr. Tunis said. These measures include getting adequate rest, being sun smart, getting regular exercise, eating a healthy diet and not smoking.

"It's also incredibly important to regularly see your doctor - not just when your lupus symptoms worsen. Having regular checkups with your doctor can help prevent flare-ups," Dr. Tunis said.
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