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May Is Lupus Awareness Month: What Is Lupus?

Many of us have heard the word “lupus” and maybe even know someone who has the disease, but not many understand what lupus is, how it affects people, and whether there is a cure.

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic disease that can cause pain and inflammation in any part of the body, including the organs. Because it causes many different symptoms, lupus is difficult to diagnose and diagnosis can take up to six years.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system that usually fights infections in our bodies attacks healthy tissue instead. It commonly affects people’s skin, joints, and internal organs, specifically the kidneys and lungs. It is most often diagnosed in females between the ages of 15 and 44.

The Four Types of Lupus

There are four types of lupus. They are:

  1. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): Also simply called “systemic lupus,” SLE is the most common form of lupus and can range from mild to severe. It affects the body’s ability to filter waste from the blood, causing:
  • Inflammation of the kidneys, in which, in extreme cases, dialysis or a kidney transplant may be necessary.
  • Inflammation of the nervous system and brain, resulting in memory problems, confusion, headaches, and stroke.
  • Inflammation of the brain’s blood vessels, which can cause high fevers, seizures, and behavioral changes.
  • Hardening of the arteries, or coronary artery disease, a buildup of deposits on the walls of arteries that can lead to a heart attack.
  1. Cutaneous lupus erythematosus: Skin disease affects two-thirds of lupus sufferers. Lupus can cause rashes or lesions mainly on the areas of the skin exposed to the sun, including the face, ears, neck, arms, and legs. Exposure to the sun can even make lupus skin disease worse. The three forms of lupus skin disease are:
  • Chronic cutaneous (discoid) lupus: Disk-shaped lesions that appear on the scalp and face but can sometimes occur elsewhere on the body.
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus: A widespread photosensitive rash. It often appears on the arms, shoulders, and neck.
  • Acute cutaneous lupus: A butterfly-shaped rash that appears on the face—on both cheeks and the bridge of the nose—and may resemble a sunburn.
  1. Drug-induced lupus: This form of lupus is caused by certain prescription drugs, particularly the following:
  • Hydralazine—used to treat hypertension, or high blood pressure
  • Procainamide—used to treat irregular heart beats
  • Isoniazid—used to treat tuberculosis

Because more men than women are prescribed these drugs, men tend to get this type of lupus more often than women do. Symptoms include muscle and joint paint, fatigue and fever, inflammation of the lungs or heart that causes pain, and abnormalities in laboratory tests. Fortunately, symptoms of drug-induced lupus can stop six months after discontinuing the prescriptions that cause it.

  1. Neonatal lupus: Although not a true form of lupus, neonatal lupus is a rare condition associated with certain antibodies passed from the mother to her fetus. The baby’s symptoms at birth may include skin rash, liver problems, and low blood cell counts, which typically disappear after six months. Congenital heart block is the most serious symptom and is often detected when the fetus is 18 to 24 weeks old. It does not disappear, and infants will need a pacemaker to correct its symptoms. With proper testing, however, the infant can be treated at birth or in utero and live a healthy life.

Symptoms of Lupus

Symptoms of lupus resemble those of other diseases, like arthritis and diabetes. Discussing symptoms with a doctor can help determine if lupus is the cause when experiencing the following:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Pain or swelling in joints
  • Swelling in the hands, feet, or around eyes
  • Headaches
  • Low fevers
  • Sensitivity to sunlight or fluorescent light
  • Chest pain when deeply breathing
  • Butterfly-shaped rash on cheeks and nose
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth or nose sores
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue and feel numb when person is cold or stressed (Raynaud’s disease)

Is There a Cure?

There is no cure for lupus. Treatment involves relieving symptoms and protecting organs by decreasing inflammation in the body. The medications used to treat lupus include anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, antimalarials, and immunosuppressives, among others.

Get More Information

For more information on lupus, contact the Lupus Foundation of America (https://www.lupus.org/) at (202) 349-1155 and info@lupus.org or the Lupus Foundation of Southern California (https://lupussocal.org/), which is headquartered on Murphy Canyon Road in San Diego, at (858) 278-2788 or info@lupussocal.org.


Sources: Lupus Foundation of America, https://www.lupus.org/resources and “Medications Used to Treat Lupus,” https://www.lupus.org/resources/medications-used-to-treat-lupus, National Resource Center on Lupus, https://www.lupus.org/resources; Lupus Foundation of Southern California, https://lupussocal.org/.


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