Lupus isn’t contagious. You can’t catch it from another person — even through very close contact or sex. Experts think this autoimmune disease starts due to a combination of genes and the environment.
Lupus affects nearly 1.5 million Americans. It develops when your immune system misfires and attacks tissues like your joints, skin, kidneys, lungs, and heart. This attack results in inflammation that can damage these organs.
Keep reading to learn more about why this happens, symptoms to watch for, and how to reduce your risk.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease. That means your immune system mistakenly turns against and attacks your own tissues.
Normally, your immune system protects your body against foreign invaders like bacteria and viruses. When it detects these germs, it attacks with a combination of immune cells and specific proteins called antibodies. In an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakes your own tissues — such as your skin, joints, or heart — as foreign and attacks them.
Experts think a few different factors trigger this immune system assault, including:
- Your genes. Lupus sometimes runs in families. Researchers have found more than 50 genes that they believe are linked to the condition. Although most of these genes are unlikely to cause lupus alone, they may make you more vulnerable to developing lupus if you’re exposed to other risk factors.
- Your environment. If you have lupus, certain factors around you can set off your symptoms. This includes ultraviolet light from the sun, infections such as the Epstein-Barr virus, and exposure to certain chemicals or medications.
- Your hormones. Because lupus is much more common in women, researchers suspect female hormones may have something to do with the disease. Women do tend to have worse symptoms before their menstrual periods, when estrogen levels rise. However, the link between estrogen and lupus has not been proven.
You’re more likely to develop lupus if:
- You’re female. Nine times more women than men have lupus.
- You’re between the ages of 15 and 44. This is the age range at which lupus most often starts.
- One of your close relatives — like a parent or sibling — has lupus or another autoimmune disease. These conditions tend to run in families. People whose relatives have lupus have a 5 to 13 percent risk of developing the disease.
- Your family is of African-American, Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or Pacific Island descent. Lupus is more common in these groups.
Just about everyone experiences lupus differently. One thing that is consistent is the pattern of symptoms.
You’ll typically have periods when your symptoms worsen (flares) followed by relatively symptom-free periods (remissions).
Common symptoms include:
- extreme fatigue
- joint pain, stiffness, or swelling
- a butterfly-shaped rash across your cheeks and nose
- increased sensitivity to sunlight
- hair loss
- toes that turn white or blue when they’re exposed to cold
- chest pain
- shortness of breath
- hair loss
- sores in your mouth or nose
It’s important to note that many of these symptoms appear with other diseases, including fibromyalgia, Lyme disease, and rheumatoid arthritis. That’s why lupus is sometimes called “the great imitator.”
If you’re experiencing symptoms like extreme fatigue, joint pain, rash, or fever, see your doctor for a diagnosis.
No one test can tell for sure whether you have lupus. However, there is a test that can identify autoimmune diseases in general. It’s called an antinuclear antibody (ANA) test. It looks for antibodies directed against your body tissues that are produced in certain autoimmune diseases. Detection of other antibodies will suggest a diagnosis of lupus.
Once your doctor knows you have an autoimmune disease, blood and urine tests can help pinpoint which condition you have. These tests look for signs of lupus like kidney and liver damage. Sometimes, your doctor will recommend a biopsy, or tissue sample, to diagnose lupus.
Once a diagnosis has been made, your doctor will work with you to develop a treatment plan. Your individual plan will depend on which symptoms you have and how severe they are.
Medication is usually prescribed to help reduce inflammation and dampen the overactive immune system response that causes your symptoms.
Your doctor may prescribe:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), to treat pain and joint swelling
- antimalarial drugs, such as hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil), to help control the immune system response
- corticosteroids, like prednisone, to help reduce inflammation
- immunosuppressants, such as azathioprine (Imuran) and methotrexate, to help lower your immune system response
It might take some trial and error to find the treatment that best relieves your symptoms.
Because this disease affects so many body parts, a number of doctors could be involved in your care. This includes a:
- rheumatologist, a specialist who treats joint diseases and autoimmune diseases in general
- dermatologist, a specialist who treats skin diseases
- cardiologist, a specialist who treats heart diseases
- nephrologist, a specialist who treats kidney diseases
The outlook for lupus varies from person to person. Today, with the right treatment, most people with lupus can live long and full lives. Following your treatment plan and taking your medicine as prescribed can help prevent your symptoms from coming back.
You can’t necessarily prevent lupus, but you can avoid the factors that trigger your symptoms. For example, you can:
- Limit your time in direct sunlight if sun exposure causes a rash. You should always wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 70 or higher that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.
- Try to avoid medications, if feasible, that make you even more sensitive to the sun. This includes the antibiotics minocycline (Minocin) and trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim), and diuretics such as furosemide (Lasix) or hydrochlorothiazide.
- Develop stress management techniques. Meditate, practice yoga, or get massages — whatever helps calm your mind.
- Stay away from people who are sick with colds and other infections.
- Get enough sleep. Go to bed early enough each night to guarantee yourself seven to nine hours of rest.