Lupus is a complex disorder of the immune system that affects approximately 1.5 million Americans of all ages. Although most people with lupus are women who’ve developed it between the ages of 15-44, lupus can strike anyone at any age.
Complicating the disease is the fact that people with lupus tend to be more sensitive to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays than people without lupus. In fact, within days of sun exposure, you can have a lupus attack that ranges from mild to severe.
At the Rheumatology Center of New Jersey, we aim to keep your lupus flares in check so you can live a full and rich life. You may have noticed already that your disease is triggered by sunlight. Or maybe you’re not sure if you have sun sensitivity.
If you have lupus, here’s what you should know about the sun.
UVA and UVB rays damage your DNA
Whether you have lupus or not, if you’re exposed to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, your skin’s cellular DNA is affected and damaged. In fact, DNA damage due to sunburns and other sun exposure is the prime factor behind sun-induced skin cancers.
If you have lupus, your skin cells are more sensitive than average to DNA damage from the sun. A healthy immune system clears out DNA-damaged cells. But if you have lupus, the dead cells linger and trigger a disease flare.
The most common reaction caused by lupus’s photosensitivity is a rash. You may also experience:
- Joint pain
To complicate matters, many people with lupus aren’t just triggered by the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Even the UV light from fluorescent or incandescent bulbs can bring on an attack.
How to know if you’re sun sensitive
About two-thirds of patients with lupus have some degree of photosensitivity. In one small study, 83% of people with lupus reported that they had sun sensitivity. Often, they didn’t develop symptoms until several days after sun exposure.
If you have antibodies to the antigens Ro and La (aka SSA and SSB), you’re more likely to be photosensitive.
If you don’t have those antibodies and you haven’t noticed that sunlight triggers your symptoms, you can experiment with a small amount of sun exposure during the early morning and late afternoon.
After a few days, if you don’t have any symptoms, you can gradually increase your sun exposure. Still, of course, engage in sun-safe behaviors. Call your rheumatologist right away if you have a flare. Sun-induced lupus flares are usually mild, but they can be debilitating.
Protect yourself from UV light
Even without being concerned about increased photosensitivity, you should practice sun safety by limiting your UVA and UVB exposure. If you haven’t already adopted the following sun-safe behaviors, do so now:
- Limit sun exposure to before 10am and after 4pm
- Wear a full-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or more when outdoors or near a window
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and long sleeves when outdoors
If you’ve noticed that indoor lighting also triggers attacks, you may need to make modifications to your home or office. Suggestions include:
- Use light bulbs with low UV outputs
- Use lower wattage bulbs
- Cover bulbs with UV filters
- Tint your home and office windows with UV screens
- Look into a medical exemption for car-window tinting
Also, review your medications with us. Some drugs increase photosensitivity.
Find out more about how to protect yourself from photosensitivity and reduce lupus attacks by contacting your nearest Rheumatology Center of New Jersey office. We have locations in Somerville, Flemington, and Monroe, New Jersey.