The number of people with lupus in the United States has been estimated to be as many as 1.5 million. Anyone can develop lupus, including children, but certain people are more likely to develop the disease. The ALR-funded International SLE Genetics (SLEGEN) Consortium research project has indentified links between specific genes and women with lupus. Nine out of ten people who have lupus are women, and the disease usually strikes during the childbearing years. Lupus is three times more common in African-American women than in Caucasian women and is also more prevalent in women of Latino, Asian, and Native American descent.
What is lupus?
Lupus is one of many disorders of the immune system known as autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system turns against parts of the body it is designed to protect. This leads to inflammation and damage to various body tissues. Lupus can affect many parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain. Although people with the disease may have many different symptoms, some of the most common ones include extreme fatigue, painful or swollen joints (arthritis), unexplained fever, skin rashes, and kidney problems.
In lupus, something goes wrong with your immune system, which is the part of the body that fights off viruses, bacteria, and germs ("foreign invaders," like the flu). Normally our immune system produces proteins called antibodies that protect the body from these invaders. Autoimmune means your immune system cannot tell the difference between these foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues ("auto" means "self") and creates autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
At present, there is no cure for lupus. However, lupus can be effectively treated with drugs, and most people with the disease can lead active, healthy lives. Lupus is characterized by periods of illness, called flares, and periods of wellness, or remission. Understanding how to prevent flares and how to treat them when they do occur helps people with lupus maintain better health. Intense research is underway, and scientists funded by the NIH are continuing to make great strides in understanding the disease, which may ultimately lead to a cure.
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There are several kinds of lupus:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the form of the disease that most people are referring to when they say “lupus.” The word “systemic” means the disease can affect many parts of the body. The symptoms of SLE may be mild or serious. Although SLE usually first affects people between the ages of 15 and 45 years, it can occur in childhood or later in life as well. This booklet focuses on SLE.
- Discoid lupus erythematosus is a chronic skin disorder in which a red, raised rash appears on the face, scalp, or elsewhere. The raised areas may become thick and scaly and may cause scarring. The rash may last for days or years and may recur. A small percentage of people with discoid lupus have or develop SLE later.
- Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus refers to skin lesions that appear on parts of the body exposed to sun. The lesions do not cause scarring.
- Drug-induced lupus is a form of lupus caused by medications. Many different drugs can cause drug-induced lupus. They include some antiseizure medications, high blood pressure medications, antibiotics and antifungals, thyroid medications, and oral contraceptive pills. Symptoms are similar to those of SLE (arthritis, rash, fever, and chest pain), and they typically go away completely when the drug is stopped. The kidneys and brain are rarely involved.
- Neonatal lupus is a rare disease that can occur in newborn babies of women with SLE, Sjögren’s syndrome, or no disease at all. Scientists suspect that neonatal lupus is caused in part by autoantibodies in the mother’s blood called anti-Ro (SSA) and anti-La (SSB). Autoantibodies (“auto” means self) are blood proteins that act against the body’s own parts. At birth, the babies have a skin rash, liver problems, and low blood counts. These symptoms gradually go away over several months. In rare instances, babies with neonatal lupus may have congenital heart block, a serious heart problem in which the formation of fibrous tissue in the baby’s heart interferes with the electrical impulses that affect heart rhythm. Neonatal lupus is rare, and most infants of mothers with SLE are entirely healthy. All women who are pregnant and known to have anti-Ro (SSA) or anti-La (SSB) antibodies should be monitored by echocardiograms (a test that monitors the heart and surrounding blood vessels) during the 16th and 30th weeks of pregnancy. It is important for women with SLE or other related autoimmune disorders to be under a doctor’s care during pregnancy. Doctors can now identify mothers at highest risk for complications, allowing for prompt treatment of the infant at or before birth. SLE can also flare during pregnancy, and prompt treatment can keep the mother healthier longer.
Signs and Symptoms
Each person with lupus has slightly different symptoms that can range from mild to severe and may come and go over time. However, some of the most common symptoms of lupus include painful or swollen joints (arthritis), unexplained fever, and extreme fatigue. A characteristic red skin rash—the so-called butterfly or malar rash—may appear across the nose and cheeks. Rashes may also occur on the face and ears, upper arms, shoulders, chest, and hands and other areas exposed to the sun. Because many people with lupus are sensitive to sunlight (called photosensitivity), skin rashes often first develop or worsen after sun exposure.
Other symptoms of lupus include chest pain, hair loss, anemia (a decrease in red blood cells), mouth ulcers, and pale or purple fingers and toes from cold and stress. Some people also experience headaches, dizziness, depression, confusion, or seizures. New symptoms may continue to appear years after the initial diagnosis, and different symptoms can occur at different times. In some people with lupus, only one system of the body, such as the skin or joints, is affected. Other people experience symptoms in many parts of their body. Just how seriously a body system is affected varies from person to person
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Facts about lupus
These are some facts about lupus that you should know:
- Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. You cannot "catch" lupus from someone or "give" lupus to someone.
- Lupus is not like or related to cancer. Cancer is a condition of malignant, abnormal tissues that grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues. Lupus is an autoimmune disease, as described above. However, some treatments for lupus may include immunosuppressant drugs that are also used in chemotherapy.
- Lupus is not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.
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Your treatment will be tailored to control symptoms and slow the damage to your organs. Medications can help -- but so can stress reduction and a healthy lifestyle.
Your treatment will depend on how severe symptoms are, whether organs are involved, and if your daily life is affected.
Good nutrition is important to keeping your body fueled and strong during lupus treatments.