Understanding Lupus



Lupus (Latin for "wolf") erythematosus (Greek for "reddish") was the name 19th-century physicians gave to a mysterious disease that often caused a rash on the face that resembled the bite of a wolf. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly shortened to lupus, is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system turns inward, harming the body's own tissues. (Another form of the disease that affects only the skin is called cutaneous lupus.)

Lupus is a case of the body not recognizing itself. For some as yet unknown reason, the immune system goes awry and begins manufacturing substances called antibodies against its own tissues, causing painful and sometimes dangerous inflammation. These autoantibodies, as they are called, cause a complex sequence of immune responses. They combine with other immune substances to form immune complexes, which become lodged in selective tissues, frequently connective tissue, causing inflammation.

Connective tissue is found throughout the body. It binds celts and tissues together; some examples are tissues around joints and tissues lining the heart and lungs. The immune complexes can also deposit in the kidneys, interfering with kidney function, or in the tissues of the brain, causing headaches and/or seizures. Tissues are also damaged as the body attempts to destroy the immune complexes, a process that releases harmful chemicals.

As a result of this inflammatory process, lupus can cause a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms: fatigue, fever (not related to infection), joint pain (similar to arthritis), skin rash, chest pain (from inflammation around the heart and lungs) and headaches. Many types of blood abnormalities, including anemia, low white count (which in turn impairs the body's ability to fight infections) and low platelet count (which impairs the blood's clotting ability) can also occur.

In some cases doctors know what triggers increased disease activity, called flares. In some lupus patients, for example, infections, ultraviolet light (including sunlight), various medications and pregnancy can cause flares. In other cases, however, the disease flares for no readily apparent reason.

More common than cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, leukemia or cerebral palsy, lupus affects at least 500,000 Americans, and possibly as many as 1.4 million. It is nine times more common among women than among men and three times as common among black women as it is among white women. While it can be diagnosed at any age, it strikes most commonly during the childbearing years.
Article copyright American Council on Science and Health, Inc.

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