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Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation throughout your body. An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your body’s own immune system is responsible for the inflammation and breakdown of its own cells. The inflammation seen in lupus can affect various organs and tissues in your body, including your:
This disease can be severe and potentially life-threatening. It can cause permanent organ damage. However, many people with lupus experience a mild version of it. Currently, there’s no known cure for lupus.
The symptoms of lupus vary according to the parts of your body affected. Symptoms can disappear suddenly. They can be permanent or flare up occasionally. Although no two cases of lupus are the same, the most common symptoms and signs include:
Doctors and researchers aren’t sure what the exact causes of lupus are. However, most believe that lupus may be caused by the following factors:
Although there’s no concrete evidence, most researchers believe heredity plays a role. Having a family history of lupus doesn’t mean you will develop it. However, you may have a slightly higher risk of developing it.
Environmental triggers for the disease may include:
However, more research needs to be done to draw any definite conclusions.
Exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet (UV) light is the only environmental influence that has been associated with skin inflammation and malar butterfly rash in lupus. UV light exposure has also been associated with inflammation in internal organs in people prone to developing lupus.
Some studies suggest that hormones could be responsible. Many doctors and researchers consider abnormal estrogen levels to be a risk factor.
Some people infected with certain viruses, such as cytomegalovirus, may develop lupus. The association between hepatitis C and lupus is still under investigation. Direct causal links between these illnesses and lupus have never been established. The Epstein-Barr virus has been linked to the development of childhood lupus, but studies haven’t been conclusive.
In some rare cases, the long-term use of certain medications can trigger lupus. Drug-induced lupus erythematosus (DILE) is a subset of the disease. Several dozen drugs are linked to DILE.
Some of the more common medications linked to DILE include medications used to treat high blood pressure, such as hydralazine, and drugs used to treat irregular heartbeats, including procainamide and quinidine.
DILE is a rare consequence of taking these medications on a long-term basis.
Many doctors and researchers believe that a combination of factors causes lupus. For example, someone with a family history of the disease who’s exposed to certain environmental factors may develop it.
Four types of lupus are commonly diagnosed:
This is the most common type of lupus. When most people refer to lupus, this is the form they mean. SLE can be mild or extremely severe.
This type of lupus is generally limited to your skin. It may cause rashes and permanent lesions with scarring. The cutaneous form of skin lupus that causes scarring is called discoid lupus.
DILE is caused by the long-term use of certain prescribed medications. It mimics the symptoms of systemic lupus, but in most cases, major organs aren’t affected.
Neonatal lupus is extremely rare and affects infants born to mothers who have lupus. If your child is born with neonatal lupus, they may have a skin rash, liver problems, and a low blood cell count. These symptoms usually disappear after a few months, with no lasting issues. Rarely, infants with neonatal lupus may have serious heart defects. Lupus can be diagnosed before birth, allowing for proper treatment and optimum health for these babies.
The following groups are at increased risk for being diagnosed with lupus:
It can be difficult to diagnose lupus because the signs and symptoms vary. Your doctor will get a detailed medical history and assess your general health to rule out other conditions.
No single test can definitively reveal the condition. A combination of symptoms and tests will help your doctor learn if you’re affected. Some of the tests performed include:
Several laboratory tests may be performed. Certain test results can help your doctor determine if you have lupus:
Chest X-rays and echocardiograms are often used to check for abnormal swelling or fluid. These things can indicate damage caused by lupus.
If you have a rash that may be caused by lupus, a skin biopsy can be taken. A special microscopic analysis will be performed to confirm skin lupus.
Your kidney is another critical organ that can be affected by lupus. A kidney biopsy may be needed to look for damage from lupus. This test doesn’t require major surgery. Typically, a local anesthetic is used. Then, your doctor will insert a needle through your skin to your kidneys to take a sample of your kidney tissue for microscopic examination. This procedure can be done under ultrasound guidance.
Treating lupus is generally restricted to treating the symptoms. As your symptoms subside or change, your treatment plan may need regular adjustments.
The following medications can treat the symptoms of lupus:
The following lifestyle changes may provide benefits:
Some people have reported relief from using certain alternative therapies along with traditional treatments. Supplements are commonly used, although you should talk with your doctor about any alternative therapies you want to try.
Commonly used supplements include:
Since the exact cause of lupus isn’t known, it’s not yet possible to prevent it. More research and studies are needed to learn the cause of the disease. This could lead to effective prevention strategies. Until then, your doctor will probably focus on fighting inflammation, controlling your symptoms, and alleviating any pain associated with lupus.
Written by: Bree Normandin and Matthew Solan
Medically reviewed on: Mar 28, 2016: Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP
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