What is lupus?
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs). “Chronic” means that the signs and symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years.
In lupus, something goes wrong with the immune system, which is the part of the body that fights off viruses, bacteria, and germs (“foreign invaders,” like the flu). Normally our immune systems produce proteins called “antibodies” which protect the body from these invaders.
“Autoimmunity” means your immune system cannot tell the difference between these foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues (“auto” means “self”). As a result, it creates autoantibodies that attack and destroy healthy tissue.
These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
Additional 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.
- Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening and should always be treated by a doctor. With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life.
Understanding lupus: A guide
If you’ve been diagnosed with lupus, you probably have a lot of questions about the disease and how it may affect your life. Lupus affects different people in different ways. For some, lupus can be mild — for others, it can be life-threatening.
Right now, there’s no cure for lupus. The good news is that with the support of your doctors and loved ones, you can learn to manage it. Learning as much as you can about lupus is an important first step.
Lupus is a chronic (long-term) disease that can cause inflammation (swelling) and pain any part of your body. It’s an autoimmune disease, meaning that your immune system attacks healthy tissue (tissue is what our organs are made of). Lupus most commonly affects the skin, joints, and internal organs — like your kidneys or lungs.
Learn more about lupus.
Who is at risk for developing lupus?
In the United States, at least 1.5 million people have lupus — and about 16,000 new cases of lupus are reported each year.
People of all ages, genders, and racial or ethnic groups can develop lupus. But certain people are at higher risk than others, including:
- Women ages 15 to 44
- Certain racial or ethnic groups — including people who are African American, Asian American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, or Pacific Islander
- People who have a family member with lupus or another autoimmune disease
What causes lupus?
No one knows what causes lupus. Lupus and other autoimmune diseases do run in families. Experts also think it may develop in response to certain hormones (including estrogen) or environmental triggers. An environmental trigger is something outside the body that can bring on symptoms of lupus — or make them worse.
Some common triggers of lupus symptoms include:
- Ultraviolet rays from the sun or fluorescent lights
- Certain antibiotic drugs
- Having an infection
- Exhaustion (feeling very tired)
- Stress to the body, like getting hurt or having surgery
- Emotional stress, like being very busy or having problems at home
Lupus is not contagious — you can’t “catch” lupus or give it to someone else.
What are the symptoms of lupus?
Because lupus can affect so many different parts of the body, it can cause a lot of different symptoms. Keep in mind that these symptoms may come and go.
Symptoms of lupus may include:
- Fatigue (feeling tired often)
- Painful or swollen joints
- Swelling in the hands, feet, or around the eyes
- Low-grade fevers
- Sensitivity to sunlight or fluorescent light
- Chest pain when breathing deeply
- People with lupus may also have problems with the skin and hair, including:
- A butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose
- Hair loss
- Sores in the mouth or nose
- Lupus may also cause problems with the blood and blood vessels, like:
- Blood clots
- Low numbers of red blood cells (anemia)
- Fingers and toes turning white or blue and feeling numb when a person is cold or stressed (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
What kinds of doctors treat lupus?
Most people who have lupus will see a rheumatologist. But because lupus can cause problems anywhere in the body, you may have other types of doctors and health care professionals on your treatment team.
Other types of lupus
When people talk about lupus, they’re usually talking about systemic lupus. But there are other types — including cutaneous lupus, drug-induced lupus, and neonatal lupus.
The impact of lupus ranges from mild to life-threatening.
Joint pain, skin rashes, fevers and fatigue are most common.
Diagnosis is difficult because lupus disease activity often is unpredictable.
Please watch this short, but helpful video below: