What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease. Your immune system is what normally protects your body from infections. With an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy tissues and organs instead. That causes inflammation and damage. Chronic means that the condition develops and may get worse as time goes by. Chronic illnesses like lupus usually have symptoms that last anywhere from six weeks to several years or longer. 

Types of Lupus

Researchers have identified four types of lupus. They include:

  • Systemic lupus makes up about 70% of all cases. Major organs and multiple systems in the body are affected in about half of those cases.
  • Drug-induced lupus has symptoms similar to systemic lupus. It's caused by high doses of some drugs.
  • Neonatal lupus is rare. It happens when a mother's immune system affects her unborn baby.
  • Cutaneous lupus only affects the skin.

Causes of lupus

Your immune system attacking the healthy tissue in your body is what causes lupus. But, doctors don't fully know the underlying cause of why that happens. Some researchers believe that triggers like sunlight, infections and medications like antibiotics or blood pressure drugs can trigger symptoms. Hormones, genetics and the environment may play a role in causing this disease.

Hormones regulate many of your body's functions. More women have lupus than men. Researchers believe that higher estrogen levels may be linked to increased risk of getting lupus.

Scientists have found more than 50 different genes associated with lupus. Those genes may not cause it. Researchers believe that these genes do play a role.

Environmental causes are unknown. Researchers believe that chemicals or viruses may trigger lupus in people who have genes that increase their risk.

Risk factors of lupus

Researchers continue looking for causes and triggers to better understand the disease. While they're still not sure exactly what causes it, they have pinpointed three major risk factors, including:

Age: Most patients are between the ages of 15 and 44.

Sex: Approximately 90% of patients with lupus are women.

Nationality: People of Asian, Native American and African descent are more at risk than Caucasians.

Symptoms of lupus

Most lupus patients have a mild form of the disease. They have flares of symptoms that get worse. Then, symptoms may improve or go away for a while. Other people have more constant symptoms. No two cases of the condition are identical. One of the most common symptoms is a butterfly-shaped rash that covers your cheeks and nose. Other common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Chest pain 
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Confusion/memory loss
  • Rashes or skin wounds that get worse after you've been in the sun
  • Fingers and toes turning blue or white during stressful times or after being in the cold

Diagnosis of lupus

Diagnosing lupus can be difficult. The symptoms of lupus are similar to other conditions. They can also be unclear. Approximately 63% of lupus patients report having difficulties getting a correct diagnosis.

Your doctor may run tests to check your organ function. They might also check your blood cell and platelet counts. Some tests look for the presence of antibodies that your immune system makes. The doctor may also do a chest X-ray or other imaging tests to see your lungs or heart and how they're working.

Treatments for lupus

The treatment that's best for you depends on the symptoms you have. Doctors commonly use medications like:

  • Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to treat pain and fever
  • Antimalarial medications that reduce flares by affecting the immune system
  • Immunosuppressants that decrease the activity of your immune system
  • Corticosteroids like prednisone, which can control inflammation

Recovery from lupus

There is no cure for lupus, but you can manage your symptoms. Having support from family and friends can be essential during recovery. It also helps to learn all you can about the condition so you're informed about your options. Connecting with other patients online or at local support groups might be helpful to you. One of the useful steps you can take is connecting with a knowledgeable doctor. They can walk beside you on your journey of living with lupus.