What Is Lupus?
Lupus is a complex autoimmune disease. In people with lupus, the immune system turns against parts of the body it is designed to protect. Lupus can affect many parts of the body, including the:
Although people with lupus may have many different symptoms, some of the most common include:
There is no cure for lupus but lupus can be effectively treated with drugs -- and most people with the disease are able to remain functional and active. Lupus is characterized by periods of increased symptoms, called flares, and periods of inactive symptoms, or remission. Understanding how to prevent flares and how to manage them when they do occur helps people with lupus cope with the effects of the disease on daily life.
Researchers are studying many aspects of lupus, including who gets the disease and why. Here's what we know -- many more women than men develop lupus. Lupus is three times more common in African American women than in Caucasian women and lupus is also more common in women of Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent. While lupus can run in families, the risk that a child or sibling of a patient will also have lupus is considered low.
There are several types of lupus:
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the form of the disease that most people are think of when they speak of lupus. Systemic implies that the disease can affect many parts of the body, including organs. Symptoms may be mild or severe. Typically, the first symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus develop between the ages of 15 and 45 years, but it does affect people younger and older too.
Discoid lupus erythematosus is a chronic skin disorder characterized by a red, raised rash which appears on the face, scalp, or other skin areas. The raised rash can become thick and scaly, possibly even causing scarring. The rash can linger for days, years, and possibly recur. Some, but not most, people diagnosed with discoid lupus will develop systemic lupus erythematosus down the road.
Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus is a type of lupus with skin lesions that appear on parts of the body that have been sun-exposed. The lesions associated with this type of lupus do not cause scarring.
Drug-induced lupus, as its name suggests, is a form of lupus caused by medications. Many different drugs can cause drug-induced lupus. While symptoms of drug-induced lupus are much like those associated with systemic lupus, they typically disappear the drug is stopped. It's also important to note that the kidneys and brain are rarely involved.
Neonatal lupus is a rare type of lupus that can occur in newborn babies of women with systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjögren's syndrome, or no disease.
Women with systemic lupus or other autoimmune disorders should consult with their doctor while pregnant. It's possible for doctors to identify mothers at high risk for complications.
What Causes Lupus?
While there has been progress in understanding lupus, the cause is still not known. A combination of genetic, environmental, and possibly hormonal factors are chief suspects. However, no single gene is thought to predispose a person to lupus -- it's thought to involve numerous genes along with other factors, including:
- certain drugs
- infectious agents such as viruses
A healthy immune system produces proteins called antibodies and specific cells called lymphocytes that help fight and destroy viruses, bacteria, and other foreign substances that invade the body. In lupus, the immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against the body's healthy cells and tissues (autoantibodies) which trigger inflammation and damage to various parts of the body. The most common type of autoantibody linked with lupus is called an antinuclear antibody (ANA) -- but researchers have more to learn.