What is lupus?

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Lupus is a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks the body's own tissues causing inflammation and pain. Severe cases can be life-threatening.

Definition

Systemic lupus erythematosus (also called lupus or SLE) is a disease where a person's immune system attacks and injures the body's own organs and tissues. Almost every system of the body can be affected by SLE.

Description

The body's immune system is a network of cells and tissues responsible for clearing the body of invading foreign organisms, like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Antibodies are special immune cells that recognize these foreign invaders, and begin a chain of events to destroy them. In an autoimmune disorder like SLE, a person's antibodies begin to recognize the body's own tissues as foreign. Cells and chemicals of the immune system damage the tissues of the body. The reaction that occurs in tissue is called inflammation. Inflammation includes swelling, redness, increased blood flow, and tissue destruction.

In SLE, some of the common antibodies that normally fight diseases are thought to be out of control. These include antinuclear antibodies and anti-DNA antibodies. Antinuclear antibodies are directed against the cell's central structure that contains genetic material (the nucleus). Anti-DNA antibodies are directed against the cell's genetic material. DNA is the chemical substance that makes up the chromosomes and genes.

SLE can occur in both males and females of all ages, but 90% of patients are women. The majority of these women are in their childbearing years. African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to develop SLE.

Occasionally, medications can cause a syndrome of symptoms very similar to SLE. This is called drug-induced lupus. Medications that may cause this syndrome include hydralazine (used for high blood pressure) and procainamide (used for abnormal heartbeats). Drug-induced lupus almost always disappears after the patient stops taking the medications that caused it.

— Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD

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