This disease can be severe and potentially life-threatening. It can cause permanent organ damage. However, many people with lupus experience a mild version of it. Currently, there’s no known cure for lupus.
Symptoms usually start in early adulthood, anywhere from the teen years into the 30s. People with lupus generally experience flare-ups of symptoms followed by periods of remission. That’s why early symptoms are easy to dismiss.
Because early symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, having them doesn’t necessarily mean you have lupus. Early symptoms can include:
- Joint pain, stiffness and swelling
- Butterfly-shaped rash on the face that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose or rashes elsewhere on the body
- Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure (photosensitivity)
- Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods (Raynaud's phenomenon)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Dry eyes
- Headaches, confusion and memory loss
Lupus occurs when your immune system attacks healthy tissue in your body (autoimmune disease). It's likely that lupus results from a combination of your genetics and your environment.
It appears that people with an inherited predisposition for lupus may develop the disease when they come into contact with something in the environment that can trigger lupus. The cause of lupus in most cases, however, is unknown.
Some potential triggers include:
- Environment: Doctors have identified potential triggers like smoking, stress, and exposure to toxins like silica dust as potential lupus causes.
- Genetics: Having a family history of lupus may put a person at slightly higher risk for experiencing the condition.
- Hormones: Some studies suggest that abnormal hormone levels, such as increased estrogen levels, could contribute to lupus.
- Infections: Doctors are still studying the link between infections like cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, or hepatitis C and causes of lupus.
- Medications: Long-term use of certain medications, such as hydralazine (Apresoline), procainamide (Procanbid), and quinidine, have been linked with causing a form of lupus known as drug-induced lupus erythematosus.
- Your sex. Lupus is more common in women.
- Age. Although lupus affects people of all ages, it's most often diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45.
- Race. Lupus is more common in African-Americans, Hispanics and Asian-Americans.
Effects on the body
Lupus can affect the following systems:
Kidneys: Inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis) can make it difficult for the body to remove waste products and other toxins effectively. Around 1 in 3 people with lupus will have kidney problems.
Lungs: Some people develop pleuritis, an inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity that causes chest pain, particularly with breathing. Pneumonia may develop.
Central nervous system: Lupus can sometimes affect the brain or central nervous system. Symptoms include headaches, dizziness, depression, memory disturbances, vision problems, seizures, stroke, or changes in behavior.
Blood vessels: Vasculitis, or inflammation of the blood vessels, can occur. This can affect circulation.
Blood: Lupus can cause anemia, leukopenia (a decreased number of white blood cells) or thrombocytopenia (a decrease in the number of platelets in the blood, which assist in clotting).
Heart: If inflammation affects the heart, it can result in myocarditis and endocarditis. It can also affect the membrane that surrounds the heart, causing pericarditis. Chest pain or other symptoms may result. Endocarditis can damage the heart valves, causing the valve surface to thicken and develop. This can result in growths that can lead to heart murmurs.
Modern treatments have improved the outlook for people with lupus. However, it remains a variable and unpredictable condition and may even be life-threatening for people whose vital organs are affected.
It's hard to predict exactly how lupus will affect you. Most people with lupus don't have the more serious complications, but your doctor and rheumatology nurse specialist will be on the look-out for these so that early treatment can be given if necessary.