The Disease

What is lupus?

  • The word lupus (from the Latin word for wolf) is attributed to the thirteenth century physician Rogerius, who used it to describe erosive facial lesions that were reminiscent of a wolf's bite.

  • Lupus is a widespread and chronic (lifelong) autoimmune disease that, for unknown reasons, causes the immune system to attack the body's own tissue and organs, including the joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, brain, blood, or skin.

  • The immune system normally protects the body against viruses, bacteria, and other foreign materials. In an autoimmune disease like lupus, the immune system loses its ability to tell the difference between foreign substances and its own cells and tissue. The immune system then makes antibodies directed against "self." 


What are the symptoms of lupus?

  • Symptoms of lupus often mimic other less serious illnesses.

  • Symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.

  • Lupus can go into periods where symptoms are not present, called remission.

  • Although lupus can affect any part of the body, most people experience symptoms in only a few organs.

The following lists the most common symptoms of lupus and the percentage of lupus patients who experience them. 

  • Achy joints (arthralgia): 95%
  • Frequent fevers of more than 100 degrees F: 90%
  • Arthritis (swollen joints): 90%
  • Prolonged or extreme fatigue: 81%
  • Skin rashes: 74%
  • Anemia: 71%
  • Kidney involvement: 50%
  • Pain in the chest on deep breathing (pleurisy): 45%
  • Butterfly-shaped rash across the cheek and nose: 42%
  • Sun or light sensitivity (photosensitivity): 30%
  • Hair loss: 27%
  • Abnormal blood clotting problems: 20%
  • Raynaud's phenomenon (fingers turning white and/or blue in the cold): 17%
  • Seizures: 15%
  • Mouth or nose ulcers: 12%

Nutrition can play a pivotal role in the management of many chronic diseases.  To learn how good nutrition habits can help reduce some of the symptoms of lupus, click here.


What are the different forms of lupus?

There are several forms of lupus: discoid, systemic, drug-induced, and overlap syndrome or mixed connective tissue disease.

  • Discoid (cutaneous) lupus is always limited to the skin and is identified by a rash that may appear on the face, neck and scalp. Discoid lupus accounts for approximately 10% of all cases.

  • Systemic lupus is usually more severe than discoid lupus, and can affect the skin, joints, and almost any organ or system of the body, including the lungs, kidneys, heart or brain. Approximately 70% of lupus cases are systemic. In about half of these cases, a major organ will be affected.

  • Drug-induced lupus occurs after the use of certain prescribed drugs. The symptoms of drug-induced lupus are similar to systemic lupus. The drugs most commonly connected with drug-induced lupus are hydralazine (used to treat high blood pressure or hypertension) and procainamide (used to treat irregular heart rhythms). The percentage of individuals using these drugs who develop drug-induced lupus is extremely small, and the symptoms usually fade when the medications are discontinued.
  • Neonatal lupus is not a chronic form of lupus. It is a rare condition that affects infants of women who have lupus and is caused by 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, called heart block. This can lead to sudden death of infant usually before 6 months of age. After this age the infant has cleared the auto-antibodies from the mother and is no longer at high-risk for heart block. With proper testing, physicians can now identify most at-risk mothers, and the infant can be treated at or before birth. (Note: Most infants of mothers with lupus are entirely healthy.
  • In approximately 10% of all lupus cases, individuals will have symptoms and signs of more than one connective tissue disease, including lupus. A physician may use the term "overlap syndrome" or "mixed connective tissue disease" to describe the illness.


Who gets lupus?

It is difficult to determine an exact number of lupus cases, and estimates vary widely.

  • Based on the results of several nationwide telephone surveys, the Lupus Foundation of America estimates that approximately 1,400,000 Americans have a form of the disease.

  • Despite the fact that lupus can affect men and women of all ages, lupus occurs 10 to 15 times more frequently among adult females than adult males.

  • Lupus develops most often between ages 15 and 44.

  • Lupus is two to three times more common among African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and Native Americans.

  • Only 10 percent of people with lupus will have a close relative (parent or sibling) who already has lupus or may develop lupus.

  • Only about 5 percent of the children born to individuals with lupus will develop the illness.


What causes lupus?

  • Lupus is NOT infectious, rare, or cancerous.

  • Researchers do not know what causes lupus.

  • While scientists believe there is a genetic predisposition to the disease, it is known that environmental factors also play a role in triggering the disease.

  • Some of the factors that may trigger lupus include infections, antibiotics, ultraviolet light, extreme stress, certain drugs, and hormones.

  • Hormonal factors may explain why lupus occurs more frequently in females than in males.


How is lupus diagnosed?

Because many lupus symptoms mimic other illnesses, are sometimes vague, and may come and go, lupus can be difficult to diagnose. Diagnosis is usually made by a careful review of:

  • a person's entire medical history,

  • physical examination, coupled with

  • an analysis of the results obtained in routine laboratory tests and some specialized tests related to immune status.

Currently, there is no single laboratory test that can determine whether a person has lupus or not. It may take months or even years for doctors to piece together evolving symptoms and accurately diagnose lupus.


How is lupus treated?

Medications that are used to treat lupus help decrease symptoms and disease progression. Treatments may be used in combination iwth other medications based on symptoms specific to each patient. It is optimal to use the least amount of medication to prevent disease flares, control symptoms, and reduce inflammation.

Click here for comprehensive descriptions and lists of medications used to treat lupus.

How can I learn more?

Coming soon: L.I.F.E.'s very first book! What makes our book unique? This all inclusive book will cover everything you need to know about lupus and you will be inspired by all of the amazing stories written by our previous scholarship recipients! More information to come soon.