What is lupus?
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes
inflammation throughout your body. An autoimmune disease is a condition in
which your body’s own immune system is responsible for the inflammation and
breakdown of its own cells. The inflammation seen in lupus can affect various
organs and tissues in your body, including your:
This disease can be severe and potentially life-threatening.
It can cause permanent organ damage. However, many people with lupus experience
a mild version of it. Currently, there’s no known cure for lupus.
What are the symptoms of lupus?
The symptoms of lupus vary according to the parts of your
body affected. Symptoms can disappear suddenly. They can be permanent or flare
up occasionally. Although no two cases of lupus are the same, the most common
symptoms and signs include:
- a fever
- body aches
- joint pain
- rashes, including a butterfly rash on the face
- skin lesions
- shortness of breath
- chronic dry eyes
- chest pain
- memory loss
What are the possible causes of lupus?
Doctors and researchers aren’t sure what the exact causes of
lupus are. However, most believe that lupus may be caused by the following
Although there’s no concrete evidence, most researchers
believe heredity plays a role. Having a family history of lupus doesn’t mean
you will develop it. However, you may have a slightly higher risk of developing
Environmental triggers for the disease may include:
- silica dust
However, more research needs to be done to draw any definite
Exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet (UV) light is the only environmental
influence that has been associated with skin inflammation and malar butterfly
rash in lupus. UV light exposure has also been associated with inflammation in
internal organs in people prone to developing lupus.
Some studies suggest
that hormones could be responsible. Many doctors and researchers consider
abnormal estrogen levels to be a risk factor.
Some people infected with certain viruses, such as
cytomegalovirus, may develop lupus. The association between hepatitis C and
lupus is still under investigation. Direct causal links between these illnesses
and lupus have never been established. The Epstein-Barr virus has been linked
to the development of childhood lupus, but studies haven’t
In some rare cases, the long-term use of certain medications
can trigger lupus. Drug-induced lupus erythematosus (DILE) is a subset of the
disease. Several dozen drugs are linked to DILE.
Some of the more common medications linked to DILE include medications
used to treat high blood pressure, such as hydralazine, and drugs used to treat
irregular heartbeats, including procainamide and quinidine.
DILE is a rare consequence of taking these medications on a
Many doctors and researchers believe that a combination of
factors causes lupus. For example, someone with a family history of the disease
who’s exposed to certain environmental factors may develop it.
What are the types of lupus?
Four types of lupus are commonly diagnosed:
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)
This is the most common type of lupus. When most people
refer to lupus, this is the form they mean. SLE can be mild or extremely
This type of lupus is generally limited to your skin. It may
cause rashes and permanent lesions with scarring. The cutaneous form of skin
lupus that causes scarring is called discoid lupus.
DILE is caused by the long-term use of certain prescribed
medications. It mimics the symptoms of systemic lupus, but in most cases, major
organs aren’t affected.
Neonatal lupus is extremely rare and affects infants born to
mothers who have lupus. If your child is born with neonatal lupus, they may
have a skin rash, liver problems, and a low blood cell count. These symptoms usually
disappear after a few months, with no lasting issues. Rarely, infants with
neonatal lupus may have serious heart defects. Lupus can be diagnosed before
birth, allowing for proper treatment and optimum health for these babies.
Who is at risk for lupus?
The following groups are at increased risk for being
diagnosed with lupus:
- Lupus primarily affects women.
- Lupus can affect people of all ages, but it’s
routinely diagnosed in people between the ages of 12 to 40.
- African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians are
diagnosed with lupus more often than other groups.
- People who use certain medications can be at
increased risk of developing DILE. Approximately 38 drugs have been linked to DILE,
including procainamide (Pronestyl), hydralazine (Apresoline), and quinidine
How is lupus diagnosed?
It can be difficult to diagnose lupus because the signs and
symptoms vary. Your doctor will get a detailed medical history and assess your
general health to rule out other conditions.
No single test can definitively reveal the condition. A
combination of symptoms and tests will help your doctor learn if you’re
affected. Some of the tests performed include:
Several laboratory tests may be performed. Certain test
results can help your doctor determine if you have lupus:
- Anemia or a low white blood cell count can be
signs of lupus. CBC tests determine the number of white blood cells, red blood
cells, and platelets in your blood.
- The erythrocyte
sedimentation rate of your blood can be an indicator of several
illnesses, such as lupus, cancer, or an infection.
- The increased
protein levels or red blood cells in your urine may indicate lupus.
- The antinuclear
antibody test is a screening test, and a positive result only indicates
activity of your immune system that’s linked to other immune diseases and
infections too. If you get a positive result, you’ll need more testing to
confirm a lupus diagnosis.
Chest X-rays and echocardiograms are often used to check for
abnormal swelling or fluid. These things can indicate damage caused by lupus.
If you have a rash that may be caused by lupus, a skin
biopsy can be taken. A special microscopic analysis will be performed to
confirm skin lupus.
Your kidney is another critical organ that can be affected by
lupus. A kidney biopsy may be needed to look for damage from lupus. This test
doesn’t require major surgery. Typically, a local anesthetic is used. Then,
your doctor will insert a needle through your skin to your kidneys to take a
sample of your kidney tissue for microscopic examination. This procedure can be
done under ultrasound guidance.
How is lupus treated?
Treating lupus is generally restricted to treating the
symptoms. As your symptoms subside or change, your treatment plan may need
The following medications can treat the symptoms of lupus:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- antimalarial medications
- immunosuppressive drugs
The following lifestyle changes may provide benefits:
- getting adequate rest
- exercising regularly
- wearing sunscreen
- avoiding prolonged exposure to UV sunlight
- avoiding smoking
- eating a balanced diet
Some people have reported relief from using certain
alternative therapies along with traditional treatments. Supplements are
commonly used, although you should talk with your doctor about any alternative
therapies you want to try.
Commonly used supplements include:
- flax seed
- fish oil
- vitamin D
Can lupus be prevented?
Since the exact cause of lupus isn’t known, it’s not yet
possible to prevent it. More research and studies are needed to learn the cause
of the disease. This could lead to effective prevention strategies. Until then,
your doctor will probably focus on fighting inflammation, controlling your symptoms,
and alleviating any pain associated with lupus.