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Systemic lupus erythematosus (also called lupus or SLE) is a disease in which a person's immune system attacks and injures the body's own organs and tissues. Almost every system of the body can be affected.
The body's immune system is a network of cells and tissues responsible for clearing the body of invading organisms, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antibodies are special immune cells that recognize these invaders, and begin a chain of events to destroy them. In an autoimmune disorder like SLE, a person's antibodies begin to identify the body's own tissues as foreign. Cells and chemicals of the immune system damage the tissues of the body. The reaction that occurs in tissue is called inflammation. Inflammation includes swelling, redness, increased blood flow, and tissue destruction.
In SLE, some of the common antibodies that normally fight diseases are thought to be out of control. These include antinuclear antibodies, which are directed against the cell structure that contains genetic material (the nucleus), and anti-DNA antibodies, which are directed against genetic material (DNA).
SLE can occur in both males and females of all ages, but 90% of patients are women. The majority of these women are in their childbearing years. African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to develop SLE.
Occasionally, such medications as hydralazine and procainamide can cause symptoms very similar to SLE. This condition is called drug-induced lupus. Drug-induced lupus usually disappears after the patient stops taking the particular medication.
The cause of SLE is unknown. Because the vast majority of patients are women, some research is being done to determine what (if any) link the disease has to female hormones. Susceptibility to SLE is known to have a genetic basis, although more than one gene is believed to be involved in disease development. As of 2002, notable progress has been made in narrowing the location of these genes. Because SLE patients may suddenly have worse symptoms (called a flare) after exposure to sunlight, such foods as alfalfa sprouts, and certain medications, environmental factors may also be at work.
The severity of symptoms varies over time, with periods of mild or no symptoms followed by a flare. During a flare, symptoms increase in severity and new organ systems may become affected.
Many SLE patients have fevers, fatigue, muscle pain, weakness, decreased appetite, and weight loss. The spleen and lymph nodes are often swollen and enlarged. Recurrent infections, particularly those caused by bacteria, are common in patients with SLE. The development of other symptoms in SLE varies depending on the organs affected.
Author Info: Belinda Rowland, Rebecca J. Frey PhD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your healthcare provider. Please consult a healthcare professional with any health concerns you may have.
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