Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, SLE

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Guide To Lupus


What Is Lupus?
What Causes It?
What Are The Symptoms?
How Is It Diagnosed?
How Is It Treated?
Can Lupus Kill You?
Facts About Lupus

In This Section:

Signs and Symptoms
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Drug Induced Lupus

Other names: Lupus is short for systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE.

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a disease that causes inflammation of tissues in the body. This inflammation causes pain in the affected area and in severe cases can lead to organ damage. Lupus is chronic which means that symptoms last longer than 6 weeks and often for many years. It tends to be a disease of flare ups, the symptoms worsen and you feel ill and then improve and you feel better. Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening, but with good care, most patients can live a full life. The word lupus comes from the Latin word lupus erythematosus meaning red wolf. Patients with lupus often develop a characteristic butterfly rash over the nose and cheek which is a similar to the facial markings of the red wolf. Lupus is classed both as a type of arthritis and autoimmune disease.

What Causes It?

It used to be thought that lupus was an autoimmune disease, but it is now generally described as an 'immune complex' disease. People with lupus have something wrong with their immune system. The immune system is the part of the body that fights off infections (germs, viruses and bacteria). In a healthy body the immune system produces proteins called antibodies to fight these foreign invaders. If you have an autoimmune disease, it means your immune system cannot tell the difference between foreign invaders and your body's own healthy tissue. Instead, it creates autoantibodies (auto means self) which attack the body's own tissue. These autoantibodies cause inflammation, damage and pain in different parts of the body. Doctors still do not know what causes someone to develop lupus, although there is a slight tendency for it to run in families. Read more about the causes of lupus.

What Are The Symptoms?

A person can have lupus without knowing it. In such instances symptoms are so mild they are not noticed and require no treatment. In moderate to severe cases, symptoms are obvious, although they can come and go. How symptoms manifest varies depending on which part of the body is inflamed. The most common symptoms are:

• Butterfly-shaped rash across cheeks and nose
• Fingers blue or white in the cold (Reynaud’s phenomenon)
• Headaches
• Unexplained fever
• Extreme tiredness
• Chest pain when breathing in
• Unusual Hair loss
• Mouth ulcers
• Sensitivity to light or sun
• Swollen joints, especially the fingers, knees and wrists (similar to rheumatoid arthritis)

For more, see symptoms of lupus.

How Is It Diagnosed?

There is no one test for lupus. Instead the diagnosis of lupus is based on the presence of characteristic symptoms and the results of several laboratory tests. One blood test is done to check for the presence of proteins in the blood called antinuclear antibodies (ANA). ANA are present in nearly 95 percent of people with systemic lupus. In practice, lupus is a difficult disease to diagnose. It can take many years of monitoring and tests to confirm. Read more about lupus diagnosis.

How Is It Treated?

There is no cure for lupus but there is effective treatment. The aim of treatment is to reduce or eliminate side effects of the disease and to prevent it from damaging the body. Most patients take at least 2 drugs, but many take 3 or 4. One of the most common medications taken for lupus is Plaquenil, it was originally designed to combat malaria. Research shows that when taken regularly (even when the patient is not experiencing a flare up) this drug may prevent long-term complications. When mild symptoms occur, patients are also treated with aspirin and other anti-inflammatory drugs as well as steroids. Steroids and other drugs used to suppress the immune system need to be monitored carefully because they can produce unpleasant side effects such as acne, excessive hair growth and increased risk of infections and heart disease. Read more about lupus treatments.

Can Lupus Kill You?

Lupus is rarely fatal, 80 to 90 percent of people with the disease live a normal life span. However, in those who suffer severe flare-ups that are difficult to control, there is a greater chance that their disease may be life threatening. The two most common causes of death from lupus are kidney failure and overwhelming infection. Heart disease (damage to the heart or blood vessels from prolonged inflammation) may be another leading cause.

Facts About Lupus

• Lupus is 6 to 9 times more common in women than men.
• About 1.5 million Americans have lupus.
• 16,000 new cases are reported every year in the U.S.
• Lupus typically starts between the ages of 15 and 44.
• Native American women are twice as likely to develop lupus as white women.
• African American women are three times as likely to develop lupus as white women.
• Lupus is not contagious, you cannot catch it.
• Lupus is not related to HIV virus or AIDs. In HIV/AIDs patients, their immune system is underactive. In lupus, the immune system is over-reactive.

  Related Articles on LUPUS

For more similar diseases, see the following:

Bone and joint problems: A to Z of symptoms.
Head and face conditions: A to Z of symptoms.

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