Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which your body’s immune system, which fights infection from germs such as bacteria and viruses, becomes overactive and attacks normal, healthy tissue instead. It is a complicated disorder that affects different people in different ways. Due to its complex nature, people sometimes call lupus the “disease of 1,000 faces.”
There are different types of lupus including systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, which is the most common type, SLE causes inflammation of the connective tissues, such as cartilage and the lining of blood vessels, but can involve many organs and systems as well. These include the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, central nervous system and blood-forming system.
Cutaneous lupus is a form of lupus that is limited to the skin. Drug-induced lupus is a lupus-like disease caused by an overreaction to certain medications, including some drugs used to treat high blood pressure, arrhythmia and tuberculosis. Symptoms typically go away once you stop taking the medication.
Most pregnant women with lupus will have healthy babies. However, around 1 percent of women with autoantibodies related to lupus will have a baby with neonatal lupus. Autoantibodies are immune system proteins that target and react to your own organs and tissues by mistake. Most problems associated with neonatal lupus resolve within six months, but the most serious complication, congenital heart block, requires a pacemaker.
The exact cause of lupus is unclear, but it is more common in people with a family history of the disease. Researchers think it may develop in response to certain hormones, such as estrogen. The fact that nine out of 10 people with lupus are women seems to support that theory, but more research is needed. Most experts believe that lupus is caused by a combination of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors.
Lupus can cause inflammation and pain in many parts of the body and often damages the skin, joints, kidneys, blood, heart and lungs. Because it affects so many areas of the body, lupus can cause a wide range of symptoms.
Common signs and symptoms of lupus include: fatigue; pain or swelling in your joints; swelling in your hands, feet or around your eyes; fever; sensitivity to sunlight or fluorescent light; and chest pain with deep breathing. If your skin and hair are involved, you may have a butterfly-shaped rash on your cheeks and nose, called a malar rash; hair loss; sores in your mouth or nose; and Reynaud’s disease, the discoloration of your fingers and toes in response to stress or cold.
Diagnosing lupus can be challenging because other disorders have similar symptoms. Your doctor will begin with an in-depth medical history and physical examination. There is no single test that can determine if you have lupus, but your doctor may start with blood tests, which can show how your immune system is working and if there’s inflammation in your body. The most useful blood tests look for the autoantibodies that are present in people with lupus.
Urine tests may also be used to see if there’re any problems with your kidneys, and a biopsy may be taken of your skin or kidneys to see if they are damaged, which can be caused by lupus.
Your doctor will look at the entire picture — medical history, symptoms and test results — to determine if you have lupus.
There are potential complications associated with lupus. These include inflammation of the heart (myocarditis and endocarditis) or the membrane that surrounds it (pericarditis). Endocarditis can damage the heart valves and cause heart murmurs. The kidneys can also become inflamed (nephritis), making then unable to effectively rid the body of waste products and toxins.
If you have lupus, you are at high risk for diabetes and pleuritis, an inflammation of the chest cavity lining. You may also be susceptible to pneumonia. Autoimmune disorders such as lupus can contribute to inflammation of the spinal cord (transverse myelitis) and blood vessels (vasculitis). It also increases your risk for atherosclerosis, which contributes to heart attack.
Currently, there is no cure for lupus, but people who have the disease can generally manage their symptoms with treatment, which includes medication. Medications can reduce pain and swelling, regulate immune system activity, balance hormones and reduce or prevent joint and organ damage.
Several types of medications are used to treat lupus. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) decrease inflammation and are often used to treat joint or chest pain, fever and swelling. Corticosteroids act like the hormone cortisol to help regulate blood pressure and the immune system. Cortisol is also a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Antimalarial medications are often prescribed to treat skin rashes, mouth sores and joint pain. Immunosuppressants are used to control inflammation and an overactive immune system. They are especially useful when corticosteroids have failed to bring symptoms under control. Other drugs are used as well, and clinical trials are ongoing that are studying even more treatments.
The medication therapies that are currently available make it possible for people with lupus to effectively manage their symptoms and live active, healthy lives. Researchers hope that through their work, they’ll be able to identify lupus at an earlier stage, so complications can be prevented before they occur.