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What is lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune condition where the immune system - whose job is to fight foreign substances in the body, like bacteria and viruses - mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. If you have lupus it may affect 2 or 3 parts of your body including joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, heart, and brain.

Up to 50,000 people are thought to have lupus, according to Lupus UK. Around 90% of people with lupus are women, usually aged between 15 and 50. People of African-Caribbean, Chinese, and Asian descent are more likely to develop lupus than white (Caucasian) people.

Lupus can cause symptoms including fatigue, skin rashes, joint pain and swelling. Lupus symptoms are shared with other conditions, which can make it hard to diagnose. The symptoms can be mild but may be life-threatening.

The causes of lupus are still poorly understood, but it is thought to be due to genetic and environmental factors.

Who gets lupus?

Scientists think a woman's hormones may have something to do with women getting lupus. However, it is important to remember that men and older people can get it too.

Black patients tend to develop lupus at a younger age and have more symptoms at diagnosis - including kidney problems. They also tend to have more severe disease than white people. For example, black patients have more seizures and strokes.

It is less common for children under the age of 15 to have lupus. One exception is babies born to women with lupus. These children may have heart, liver, or skin problems caused by lupus. With good care, most women with lupus can have a normal pregnancy and a healthy baby.

Types of lupus

The 3 main types of lupus are:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) - This condition is the most common form of lupus and is what most people mean when they refer to lupus. The word 'systemic' means that the disease can involve many parts of the body and any organ. It can affect a person’s quality of life through pain, fatigue, and associated depression and anxiety. SLE symptoms can be mild or severe.
  • Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) - Discoid lupus erythematosus is typically a milder type of lupus that usually only affects the skin. Symptoms include red, circular, scaly marks on the skin, hair loss and bald patches. A person with DLE may have to avoid direct sunlight.
  • Drug-induced lupus - More than 100 medications are known to cause lupus symptoms in some people. It is similar to SLE, but symptoms are usually milder. These usually stop if the medication is stopped or changed after seeking medical advice.

What causes lupus?

It is not known exactly what causes lupus. There is no cure, but in most cases lupus can be managed. Lupus sometimes seems to run in families, which suggests the disease may be hereditary. Researchers have identified a number of genes that appear to make a person more likely to develop the disease. It is not just a question of genes though. The environment, sunlight, stress, and certain drugs may trigger symptoms in some people. Other people who have similar genetic backgrounds may not get any signs or symptoms of the disease. Researchers are trying to find out why.

WebMD Medical Reference

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