About 1.5 million Americans suffer from lupus. The most common form is systemic lupus erythematosus, which accounts for nearly 70 percent of cases. It's an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to attack normal tissue and organs, including the kidneys, heart, lungs and skin.

Lupus can be mild or severe. Although treatment has improves significantly over the past few decades, there is still no cure. It appears that the disease is on the rise, although some scientists suggest that this increase may be due to better diagnosis in recent years.

The Causes of Lupus

First identified in the 1850s, lupus is still widely misunderstood. The exact cause is still unknown. However, because this autoimmune condition tends to run in families, doctors believe that genes play a role. About 20 percent of patients having a sibling or parent who has the disease.

Also, according to the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA), if one identical twin has lupus, there's an increased likelihood that the other twin will also have it. Even if there's no family history involved, other autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis) in your family could increase your risk of developing lupus.

Lupus occurs more in some ethnic groups, notably people of African, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Island descent, according to the LFA. 

Even if you're genetically predisposed to lupus, the disease has to be triggered. Some of the possible triggers include an infection, sun exposure, childbirth, stress, injury, or medications such as antibiotics or drugs that increase photosensitivity.

Symptoms of Lupus

Lupus is often referred to as the disease of a thousand faces. It has many symptoms, some of which are similar to other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, which can make diagnosis initially difficult. Signs of this autoimmune disease include:

  • joint pain and swelling
  • extreme fatigue
  • butterfly-shaped rashes
  • photosensitivity
  • chest pain or pleurisy
  • anemia
  • fluid retention or swelling in the extremities, legs and face
  • hair loss
  • ulcers in the mouth or nose
  • abnormal blood clotting
  • fever

Symptoms vary from person to person, and occur at different times, not necessarily all at once. Because these symptoms are common to other illnesses, it's important for you to get tested and properly diagnosed by a doctor, usually a rheumatologist.

Also, the LFA indicates that hormones play a role, especially estrogen. Because lupus symptoms increase before menstrual periods and during pregnancy (periods of high estrogen levels in the body), they indicate that this sex hormone may influence lupus.

Diagnosis of Lupus

Systemic lupus erythematosus is usually diagnosed by a rheumatologist, a doctor who specializes in autoimmune conditions. However, other forms of the disease can be diagnosed by a family doctor or internist, according the S.L.E. Lupus Foundation.

Your doctor will perform a series of tests, including a physical examination and blood tests. But, there's no single test that can confirm whether you have lupus. A diagnosis requires that you have (or have had) at least four of 11 symptoms - such as butterfly rash across the cheek, mouth or nose ulcers, photosensitivity, and a low red blood cell count.

If you are concerned that you may have lupus, it's important to see your doctor as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment with medications such as anti-malarials, corticosteroids and immunosuppressants can significantly improve your symptoms and long-term health.




Lupus Foundation of America, SLE Lupus Foundation, Lupus UK