Lupus - Symptoms and causes
Sun Exposure and Lupus
Find out why sun protection is especially important for people with lupus, how sunlight can trigger lupus symptoms, and get tips on protecting your sensitive skin.
By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Don't Miss This
Sign Up for OurLiving with Rheumatoid ArthritisNewsletter
Thanks for signing up!You might also like these other newsletters:
Many people with lupus have sun sensitive skin, also known as photosensitivity. Typical skin rashes seen in lupus include the butterfly rash, which appears over the nose and cheeks, and discoid rashes that appear as disk-shaped, raised, scaly patches on any sun-exposed area of the body. These rashes are triggered by sun exposure in 50 to 75 percent of people with lupus.
"Photosensitivity is a common symptom of systemic lupus erythematosus. Ultraviolet light consists of three bands: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Patients with lupus are most sensitive to UVA and UVB light," says Amita Bishnoi, MD, a rheumatologist at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.
When Sun-Sensitive Skin Is Exposed to Ultraviolet Light
Ultraviolet light is the invisible radiation in sunlight. "Sunlight may trigger a lupus rash and it can also trigger symptoms of joint pain and fatigue," notes Dr. Bishnoi. Lupus is a disease that goes through periods of quiet and periods of increased disease activity called flares. Many people with lupus experience flares if they get too much sun exposure.
Although experts don't know the exact cause of lupus, it is believed to be partly genetic and partly due to environmental exposures that stimulate an abnormal and exaggerated immune response. In lupus, your immune system becomes reactive to the normal cells and tissues in your body. That is why it is classified as an autoimmune disease. In addition to triggering a flare of lupus symptoms, exposure to sunlight may also be one of the main environmental causes of lupus.
How Does Ultraviolet Light Stimulate an Autoimmune Response in Lupus?
One of the functions of a normal immune system is to get rid of old, dying, or defective cells. This normal cell death process is called "apoptosis." Research shows that when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet light it may cause many of your skin cells to die. These dead cells are powerful stimulators of the immune system. In people with lupus, the process of apoptosis is slowed and the pronged presence of these dead skin cells produces the inflammatory response in your skin that causes a lupus rash. A sunburn can cause massive skin cell death, and in someone with lupus it can trigger the immune system enough to cause inflammation not only in the skin but also in the joints, muscles, and internal organs.
How Can You Protect Yourself From Ultraviolet Light Exposure?
"It is best to avoid prolonged sun exposure. Make sure you use sunscreen with SPF (sun protection factor) greater than or equal to 15, and one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Wear protective clothing. Use a broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants if you are going to be outside for long periods of time. Also, watch out for photosensitive medications, which can make you even more sensitive to sunlight," advises Bishnoi.
Here are more tips for protecting sun-sensitive skin:
- Avoid any prolonged sun exposure but be especially careful at mid-day, when ultraviolet light is strongest. Remember that clouds do not filter out all of the ultraviolet rays of the sun.
- Most people apply less sunscreen than they need. To achieve the maximum SPF, you need to apply at least one ounce of sunscreen per application. The most frequently missed areas are the back, the sides of the neck, and around the ears.
- Sunlight is not the only source of ultraviolet light. Fluorescent lights and photocopiers emit some ultraviolet light. Tanning beds are not safe for people with lupus.
- Some antibiotics, like tetracycline, can make you more sensitive to sunlight, so ask your doctor or pharmacist about photosensitivity any time you start a new drug.
- Car and house windows screen out UVB rays but not UVA. You can buy films to coat these windows for UVA protection.
Because most people with lupus are photosensitive and sunlight can trigger symptoms from skin rashes to internal organ damage, protecting yourself from sun exposure is a vital part of lupus management. It's important to know how ultraviolet light from the sun and other sources may stimulate an autoimmune response. Make sure you use a sunscreen of at least 15 SPF and that you are using enough sunscreen to get complete protection.
Video: Vacationing Smart with Lupus
Kate Middleton and Prince William Partied on a Rare Night Out in Mustique
Mocha Meringue Kisses Recipe
3 Ways to Open Ports
How to Use Sticky Notes
How to Get a Canary to Sing
How to Wash a Leotard
Your Divorce Settlement Assets and Liabilities Checklist
10 Military Watches To Suit Every Budget
The Best Men’s Travel Watches