Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body). Chronic means that the signs and symptoms tend to last longer than six weeks and often for many years. In lupus, something goes wrong with your immune system, which is the part of the body that fights off viruses, bacteria, and other germs (“foreign invaders,” like the flu). Normally our immune system produces proteins called antibodies that protect the body from these invaders. Autoimmune means your immune system cannot tell the difference between these foreign invaders and your body’s healthy tissues (“auto” means “self”). In lupus, your immune system creates autoantibodies , which attack and destroy healthy tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, pain, and damage in various parts of the body.
When people talk about “lupus,” they usually mean systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. This is the most common type of lupus. Studies suggest that more than 16,000 new cases are reported annually across the country.
Although lupus can affect almost any organ system, the disease, for most people, affects only a few parts of the body. For example, one person with lupus may have swollen knees and fever. Another person may be tired all the time or have kidney trouble. Someone else may have rashes.
Normally, lupus develops slowly, with symptoms that come and go. Women who get lupus most often develop symptoms and are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45. But the disease also can develop in childhood or later in life.
For most people, lupus is a mild disease. But for others, it may cause serious problems. Even if your lupus symptoms are mild, it is a serious disease that needs treatment. It can harm your organs and put your life at risk if untreated.
Although the term “lupus” commonly refers to SLE, this is only one type of the disease. There are other, less common types of lupus:
- Discoid lupus erythematosus, also called DLE, mainly affects the skin. A red rash may appear. Or, the skin on the face, scalp, or elsewhere may become scaly or change color. Sometimes DLE causes sores in the mouth or nose. A doctor will remove a small piece of the rash or sore and look at it under a microscope to tell if someone has DLE. If you have DLE, there is a small chance that you will later get SLE. There is no way to know if someone with DLE will get SLE.
- Drug-induced lupus is a lupus-like disease caused by certain prescription drugs. The symptoms of drug-induced lupus are similar to those of systemic lupus, but only rarely will any major organs be affected. Symptoms can include: joint pain, muscle pain, and fever. Symptoms are mild for most people. Most of the time, the disease goes away when the medicine is stopped. More men get this type of lupus because the drugs with the highest risk of causing it are used to treat heart conditions that are more common in men; however, not everyone who takes these drugs will develop drug-induced lupus. The drugs most commonly connected with drug-induced lupus are procainamide (Pronestyl®, Procanbid®) and hydralazine (Apresoline®; also, hydralazine is an ingredient in Apresazide® and Bidil®).
- Neonatal lupus is a rare condition that affects infants of women who have lupus and is caused by certain antibodies from the mother acting upon the infant in the womb. At birth, the infant may have a skin rash, liver problems, or low blood cell counts, but these symptoms disappear completely after several months with no lasting effects. Some infants with neonatal lupus can also have a serious heart defect. With proper testing, physicians can now identify most at-risk mothers, and the infant can be treated at or before birth. Most infants of mothers with lupus are entirely healthy.
This article first appeared on WomensHealth.gov.