Battling Chronic Lupus Complications

Lupus erythematosus, more commonly referred to as lupus, is a chronic autoimmune condition that affects about 1.5 million Americans. There is currently no cure. While significant advances have taken place in the treatment of lupus over the last two decades, some serious lupus complications can still occur.

Here, we tackle four of the most common lupus complications and provide a few prevention and coping strategies.

Lupus Complications No. 1: Kidney damage

Kidney failure is one of the main lupus complications, and the leading cause of death for people with lupus. The two kidney diseases that occur in lupus are lupus nephritis and lupus glomerulonephritis.

Signs of kidney damage in lupus include protein in the urine; frequent urination, especially at night; water retention leading to swelling in the face, feet, ankles, and legs; and foamy or frothy urine.

Managing this complication: The Lupus Foundation of America (LFA) indicates that some medications such as salicylates (aspirin, for example), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs such as ibuprofen) can damage kidney function. Reduce your use of these medications as much as possible.

Lower your risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs), by practicing proper hygiene, and boosting your immune system. Also, speak to your doctor about how often you should have urine tests, or blood tests such as serum creatinine level, which monitors kidney function, or serum complement test, which detects blood protein levels.

If caught early, kidney disease in lupus can be effectively treated. In fact, the LFA states that 80 percent of people who develop lupus nephritis can live a normal life span. Possible treatments for kidney disease include corticosteroids, diuretic agents, and immunosuppressive drugs. A low-salt diet can also help to treat this lupus complication.

Lupus Complications No 2: Heart problems

Women with lupus are five to 10 times more likely to develop heart disease than the rest of the population, especially if they're under 55, according to the LFA. Heart problems that can occur include inflammation of the heart muscle, arteries and heart membrane.

Also, lupus significantly increases your chances of having cardiovascular disease, and suffering a heart attack or stroke.

Managing this complication: Some of the same strategies that can prevent heart conditions in the general population are also effective for people who have lupus.

These heart-healthy practices include getting at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, losing weight, keeping blood pressure as close to normal as possible, lowering blood cholesterol levels, and not smoking.

Also, the LFA indicates that drugs to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in women with lupus are in development, so stay tuned.

Lupus Complications No. 3: Infections

When you have lupus, you're a prime target for all sorts of infections. This is due to the fact that lupus disrupts the immune system. Also, medications that effectively treat lupus - especially corticosteroids and cytotoxic drugs--make you more vulnerable to infections.

Managing this complication: The LFA recommends that you have all your vaccinations up to date, including those to prevent pneumococcal pneumonia and the flu. Try to take the lowest possible dose of corticosteroids to control your symptoms.

Also, if you have an infection, such as a UTI, herpes, or bladder infection, consult your doctor as soon as possible to get a prescription to treat the infection. Other ways to boost your immune system include eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, getting enough rest, avoiding people who are sick, and frequent hand washing.

Lupus Complications No. 4: Miscarriage

Although many women with lupus have successful pregnancies, miscarriages and preterm births are far more common in these women compared to women without lupus. About 10 percent of pregnancies in women with lupus will end in miscarriage, states the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center.

Managing this complication: Johns Hopkins recommends that every woman should be screened for antiphospholipid antibodies, which are primarily responsible for miscarriages after the first trimester in women with lupus. These antibodies cause blood vessels to narrow (vasculopathy) and blood clots to develop in blood vessels (thrombosis).

Antiphospholipid antibody syndrome can be treated with heparin or aspirin during a lupus pregnancy. Other ways to reduce the risk of miscarriage include not smoking, getting your lupus under control before you become pregnant, taking your drugs as prescribed, and working with a doctor who specializes in high-risk pregnancies.