Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that affects different parts of the body, including the joints, skin, blood, and kidneys. It is a condition in which the body's immune system attacks its own cells and tissues, resulting in pain, inflammation, and organ damage. For many people, the disease is mild and the symptoms manageable, but some patients may develop severe symptoms and life-threatening complications.
Doctors do not know the exact cause of this disease. Some evidence suggests that having a close blood relative with the illness can raise the risk factor of developing lupus, but an exact genetic link has not yet been discovered. Even those who are genetically susceptible to the disease may never actually develop it. In some cases, other factors, such as excessive exposure to sunlight or the long-term use of certain medications, may trigger the condition. The illness is much more common in women than in men, though there is no known explanation for this factor.
Symptoms are caused by a malfunctioning immune system. Normally, the immune system protects the body by detecting harmful foreign substances called antigens. In response to an attack by antigens, the body creates proteins known as antibodies, which destroy the antigens and help the body build up immunity to further attacks.
When a person has lupus, his or her immune system can't tell the difference between antigens and the normal cells and tissues in the body. Confused, the immune system produces antibodies that attack healthy cells, organs, and tissues, mistaking them for foreign contaminants. These special antibodies, known as auto-antibodies, bond with the cells and tissues they are attacking, forming immune complex molecules. As the auto-antibodies continue to attack the healthy tissues of the body, immune complex molecules build up at the attack sites, causing pain, inflammation, and damage throughout the body.
Discoid lupus is characterized by a rash that appears on the face, neck, or scalp. The rash is typically red and scaly, and may cause discomfort and hair loss around irritated areas. When it appears on the face, it is sometimes called a “butterfly rash” because it resembles the wings of a butterfly. Some patients may have the rash for only a few days at a time, while others may suffer rashes that last for months or even years. This type of the disease also causes mouth and nose ulcers, as well as sensitivity to sunlight. In some cases, it may progress to systematic illness.
The best-known type of the condition is systemic lupus. While the illness can cause the rashes common in the discoid variety, it may also affect the skin, blood, nervous system, kidneys, heart, joints, and lungs. Some individuals with the disease have only one or two organs or tissues affected, while others may have many affected organs, systems, or tissues.
Drug-induced lupus is a rare type of the disease caused by the long-term use of certain drugs. Symptoms are similar to those found in discoid and systematic form. Many drugs are linked to this type of the disease, including medications for tuberculosis, high blood pressure, schizophrenia, and Crohn's disease. Only a very small number of people taking these drugs develop this condition and the symptoms generally disappear upon discontinuing the medication.
Neonatal lupus is another rare form of the illness. The condition occurs when women with systematic lupus transfer some of their auto-antibodies to their infant during the birth process. In many cases, this condition is temporary and the symptoms subside within a few months. Rarely, the illness leads to heart defects, skin problems or decreased liver function.
Diagnosing this condition can be quite complex, as there is no definitive test for the disease. Blood tests help identify signs of inflammation and can shows how well organs are functioning. In some cases, organ biopsies may be done to check the kidneys or liver for signs of damage. A complete medical history is often an important diagnostic tool, since it can reveal a family history of the disease or any medications that could be causing the illness.
While there is no cure for the disease, symptoms and flares sometimes respond to treatment. Medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) may be used to treat fevers, joint pain, and discomfort. In some cases, immune-suppressing medications help slow the production of auto-antibodies, thus relieving symptoms. Corticosteroids are also sometimes prescribed to reduce inflammation in the body. Since many immune-suppressants and steroids have serious side effects, they are usually taken on a short-term basis only.
Lifestyles changes are sometimes recommended for those suffering with the disease. Eating a non-inflammatory diet, getting plenty of rest, and avoiding sunlight exposure may help reduce symptoms. Since lupus can be a frustrating and difficult condition to manage, some people benefit from joining support groups or attending therapy. Talking to other people with the disease, or expressing concerns to a supportive doctor or therapist may help reduce the stress and negative emotions associated with a chronic condition.