Lupus is a chronic, automimmune disease. There are a few different forms of the disease but the name is usually used to describe systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common and most serious type. The fact there’s so much variation in how lupus shows up and impacts sufferers is one reason it’s often misunderstood and can be hard to diagnose, explained Rheumatologist Robert Moyer, MD. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, close to 1.5 million Americans are living with a form of lupus.
With all autoimmune diseases, a common element is that the body’s immune system does not properly make the right amount of antibodies that fend off infections and prevent illness. “In those with lupus and similar autoimmune diseases, it’s the production of antibodies that attacks healthy tissue instead,” Dr. Moyer said. “Lupus can affect multiple organ systems, with the skin, joints, kidneys, lungs, heart, and bone marrow being the most commonly impacted.”
The risk factors and triggers for lupus are a combination of environmental, genetic and hormonal factors. Females and individuals with a certain HLA, a type of protein in your immune system based on inherited genes, are at higher risk. More specifically, women of childbearing age are most likely to develop the disease, and it’s two to three times more prevalent in women of color. While some people may be predisposed to lupus, environmental triggers, such as ultraviolet (UV) rays, a virus or infection, and some medications, tend to bring on symptoms or cause what’s called a flare-up. Smoking can also increase the negative effects of lupus.
The most frequent lupus symptoms are a rash (usually associated with photosensitivity, meaning it’s caused or intensified by UV light), hair loss, oral ulcers, and joint swelling. Some people develop inflammation in the kidneys, often detected by blood or excess protein in the urine. “Abnormalities in blood tests or an antinuclear antibody (ANA) test can provide clues, but this is not always definitive in diagnosing lupus. Generally a combination of history, labs and physical findings is necessary,” explained Dr. Moyer.
There is also no one treatment option for lupus, as this depends on the organ systems affected in each individual. “Because each case is unique, it’s important to consult with your doctor about your medical history and specific symptoms.”
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