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Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)

What Is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Patient Comments

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus, is an autoimmune disease in which a person's immune system attacks various organs or cells of the body, causing damage and dysfunction. Lupus is called a multisystem disease because it can affect many different tissues and organs in the body. Some patients with lupus have very mild disease, which can be treated with simple medications, whereas others can have serious, life-threatening complications. Lupus is more common in women than men, and for reasons that are not precisely understood, its peak incidence is after puberty.

While lupus is a chronic illness, it is characterized by periods when the disease activity is minimal or absent (remission) and when it is active (relapse or flare). The outlook (prognosis) for patients with lupus today is much better than years ago because of greater awareness and more accurate tests leading to earlier diagnosis and treatment as well as more effective and safer medications and monitoring methods.

What Are Causes and Risk Factors of Lupus?

Genetic link

As with other autoimmune diseases, people with lupus share some type of common genetic link. An identical twin of a person with lupus has a threefold to tenfold greater risk of getting lupus than a nonidentical twin. Moreover, first-degree relatives (mother, father, brother, sister) of people with lupus have an eightfold to ninefold increased risk of having lupus compared with the general public.

Environmental factors

Although an identical twin is much more likely to have lupus if her identical sibling has lupus, the likelihood of developing the disease in the unaffected twin is not 100%. Despite the nearly identical genetic makeup of identical twins, the probability of the unaffected twin developing the disease if the other twin has it is around 30%-50% or less. This implies that environmental factors may help determine whether or not the disease develops in a person. Outside of random occurrences of lupus, certain drugs, toxins, and diets have been linked in its development. Sun exposure (ultraviolet light) is a known environmental agent that can worsen rashes of patients with lupus and sometimes trigger a flare of the entire disease.

Reversible drug-induced lupus

In the past, the drugs most frequently responsible for drug-induced lupus are procainamide (Procanbid), hydralazine (Apresoline), minocycline (Minocin), phenytoin (Dilantin), and isoniazid (Laniazid). However, newer medications have been associated with drug-induced lupus, such as the new biological agents (etanercept [Enbrel], infliximab [Remicade], and adalimumab [Humira]) used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Generally, lupus that is caused by a drug exposure goes away once the drug is stopped.

Association with pregnancy and menstruation

Many women with lupus note that symptoms may be worse after ovulation and better at the beginning of the menstrual period. Estrogen has been implicated in making the condition worse, and this problem is currently being studied. Nevertheless, as a result of recent research, we do know that women with lupus may take birth-control medications without risk of activating their disease. Women who have antiphospholipid antibodies (such as cardiolipin antibodies, lupus anticoagulant, and false-positive tests for syphilis/RPR) should not take estrogens or birth-control pills because of the risk of blood clotting. Pregnant mothers with antiphospholipid antibodies have an increased risk of miscarriage and premature birth. Treatments include aspirin and blood-thinning medications (anticoagulant; heparin or low molecular weight heparin, Lovenox).

Pregnancy does not appear to worsen the long-term outcome of patients with lupus. On the other hand, active lupus tends to increase the risk of miscarriage and preterm birth. Babies of lupus mothers with the SSA antibody (anti-Ro antibody) can develop heart electrical abnormalities and a temporary skin rash (lupus neonatorum, also known as neonatal lupus). Pregnant mothers with lupus are monitored closely by obstetricians.

Last Reviewed 12/13/2017

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Patient Comments & Reviews

The eMedicineHealth doctors ask about Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus):

Lupus (Systemic Lupus) - Prevention

What prevention measures do you use to avoid getting lupus flares?

Lupus - Treatments

What treatments have been effective for your lupus?

Lupus - Experience

Please describe your experience with lupus.

Lupus - Symptoms

The symptoms of lupus can vary greatly from patient to patient. What were your symptoms at the onset of your disease?

Stress and Lupus

In what ways may stress affect the patient with lupus?

First of all, in some lupus patients (as in people without lupus), stress may cause no direct or indirect effects. Stress, however, may affect a person with lupus in one of three ways.

  • Stress may cause the same reactions that can occur in any person who does not have lupus.
  • Stress can be associated with (precipitate or initiate) the first appearance of their lupus.
  • Stress may be associated with a flare-up of their already existing disease.

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