Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects more than 5 million people around the world, including about 1.5 million adults, adolescents, and children in the United States. Like other autoimmune disorders, lupus occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks the very cells it’s meant to protect.
As a systemic illness, lupus often causes the kind of rampant inflammation and widespread tissue damage that can provoke a range of symptoms, including chronic pain, joint stiffness, extreme fatigue, cognitive impairment, and prominent skin rashes.
To decrease inflammation, alleviate pain, and reduce the risk of long-term organ and joint damage, it’s important to treat existing symptoms and prevent flare-ups. While medication can help you manage immune system response and minimize symptoms, learning how to avoid known triggers is just as critical.
Preventing lupus flare-ups can be especially challenging in the warm summer months, when common environmental triggers are more pervasive and intense than usual. Here’s what you can do to keep your symptoms under control as the temperature continues to climb.
Lupus and photosensitivity
It’s no secret that ultraviolet (UV) light is harmful — anyone who spends too much time exposing their unprotected skin to the sun’s UV rays runs the risk of sustaining long-term and irreversible damage at the cellular level.
But for people with lupus, even minimal amounts of exposure to UV light can be disastrous. That’s because lupus increases photosensitivity, making unprotected skin cells more vulnerable to UV damage.
So while spending a few minutes outside in the intense summer sun may leave the average person with a slight tan or mild sunburn, it can cause someone with lupus to develop a severe, sunburn-like rash, painful blisters, and skin swelling that’s reminiscent of an allergic reaction.
Although this powerful adverse reaction to UV radiation begins in your skin, it can trigger a more systemic immune response that produces a more far-reaching lupus flare-up, or the kind that causes joint pain, extreme fatigue, fever, lightheadedness, and flu-like symptoms.
Protect your skin from the sun
On long summer days when the sun’s rays are more intense, the best way to prevent a lupus flare-up and protect your photosensitive skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation is by minimizing your exposure to sunlight. Comprehensive skin protection includes:
Every day, at least 15 minutes before you leave the house, apply a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB), water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 50 or higher.
Use enough lotion to thoroughly cover your face, arms, legs, and other areas of exposed skin, and take extra care not to neglect your ears, neck, hands, and the tops of your feet if you’re wearing open shoes.
If you don’t like the idea of slathering sunscreen over most of your body every day, you can minimize your exposure to UV radiation by wearing clothing that provides more complete skin coverage.
Instead of wearing summer shorts and tank tops, opt for long-sleeved shirts, long, loose-leg pants, and skirts made from lightweight, tightly woven fabrics. To boost your protection even more, wear a wide-brimmed hat and wraparound sunglasses that provide 100% protection against UVA and UVB rays.
Even if you’re pretty good about wearing sunscreen, it’s still smart to stay indoors — or at least in the shade — between 10 am and 4 pm when UV rays are more direct and intense. And remember: UV rays are even more intense at higher elevations as well as in, on, or near the water.
To avoid spending too much time in the intense midday light, schedule outdoor exercise, errands, and appointments in the early morning or late evening hours as often as possible.
Enjoy a symptom-free summer
While protecting your skin from UV radiation can help you avoid severe lupus rashes and other symptoms, sunlight isn’t the only warm-weather trigger you should watch out for this summer.
For many people, soaring temperatures and high humidity levels can also prompt symptom flare-up, causing acute fatigue, increased joint pain, weakness, and difficulty thinking. To avoid heat-related flare-ups, stay in an air-conditioned or well-cooled environment.
Because lupus medications can make your skin cells less photosensitive that they would be otherwise, it’s important to continue taking any prescription medications as directed through the summer months.
And if you smoke, there’s no better time than now to quit — smoking can make lupus medications less effective or completely ineffective, leaving your skin more susceptible to UV-triggered rashes and flare-ups.
To find out how the lupus specialists at Rheumatology and Allergy Institute of Connecticut, LLC, can help you manage your symptoms and keep your condition under control, call your nearest office in Manchester or Middletown, Connecticut, today, or use the easy online tool to schedule a visit any time.