Lupus: A Debilitating Disease

Learn everything you need to know about this devastating autoimmune disease.

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Our immune system protects us from the harms of the outside world and does an amazing job. It’s able to recognize an enormous variety of foreign invaders and to design weapons specific to each one. In doing so, it defends us from the billions of organisms we come into contact with every day.

But sometimes the immune system has trouble knowing what counts as an invader and what doesn’t. While a healthy immune system knows which cells of the body belong to the body and which do not, diseases can arise that make it difficult for immune cells to know who to attack.

Instead of fighting the enemy, they turn on their allies and start to destroy the very body that they’re supposed to protect. This is called an autoimmune disease and describes what happens in systemic lupus erythematosus, more commonly known as lupus.

While many are aware of heart diseasediabetes or breast cancer, few know about lupus in spite of the fact that it affects tens of thousands of Americans. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that can affect any organ of the body including the skin, joints, heart, kidneys, lungs, nervous system and many others. As immune cells attack the body, inflammation, scarring, and permanent damage ensue, leading to worsened function and sometimes even organ failure.

 

What Causes Lupus?

No one knows what causes lupus. Some studies have shown that those who have a family history of lupus are more likely to develop it. Lupus flares can be triggered by drugs, infections, stress or even sunlight. It’s likely that lupus comes from a combination of environmental exposures and genetic influences.

Who Gets Lupus?

Lupus tends to afflict women in their 20s and 30s, with most women affected by the time they reach 50. While lupus can also happen in men, most cases occur in women for unknown reasons.

Lupus is also more common in African-Americans, though Asians and Latinos have higher rates of lupus than Caucasians. African-Americans also are more likely to experience severe complications.

What Are the Symptoms of Lupus?

While symptoms can be severe, they often come and go. A person with lupus may experience temporary flares of their symptoms that alternate with times of no symptoms. No two people experience lupus in the exact same way, and the symptoms they start out with may vary widely.

Common symptoms include fatigue, fever and weight loss. A butterfly rash on the face is also common. Other symptoms vary depending on the organ that is being attacked. 

Nick Cannon had trouble with his kidneys and was admitted to the hospital for kidney failure and later had blood clots in one of his lungs. Toni Braxton, on the other hand, first discovered her lupus diagnosis after developing pericarditis, or an inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart.

Other common signs and symptoms include:

  • Joint pain or stiffness
  • Skin rashes that get worse with sun exposure
  • Fingers or toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during periods of stress (also known as Raynaud's phenomenon)
  • Chronic shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches, confusion or memory loss
  • Propensity for blood clots, especially when a patient is young
  • Repeated loss of pregnancy
 

How Do I Get Diagnosed With Lupus?

Because lupus isn't a common disease, it's not an illness you will be tested for unless there's reason to think your symptoms might be a result of the disease. Often one symptom, like repeated loss of pregnancy in a young woman, will push a doctor to ask more questions that might uncover other symptoms.

There are a number of tests that can be done to look for lupus. Almost all are blood tests that look for immune proteins that are attacking the body. If a person is having specific symptoms, like chest pain or blood in their urine, further tests may be done on those organs to understand what exactly is going on and how bad the damage might be.

How Do We Treat Lupus?

We currently don't have any way of curing lupus, at least in part because we don't know why it occurs in the first place. There are, however, several treatments than can lengthen the lifespan significantly and decrease how often a person has flare-ups. These treatments suppress the immune system so that it doesn't attack the body as often or as intensely. Many people with lupus also take blood thinners to prevent blood clots.

Stress can aggravate the body and potentially trigger lupus flare-ups, so a special emphasis is also put on relaxation techniques combined with a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables

To learn more about lupus, visit the Lupus Foundation of America.