David Ozeri, MD, is a board-certified rheumatologist from Tel Aviv, Israel specializing in arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and biologic therapies.
Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease affecting about 1.5 million Americans, with an estimated 16,000 newly diagnosed each year. It is characterized by chronic inflammation causing pain, fatigue, swelling, skin lesions, joint stiffness, and adverse health effects that can impact the heart, lungs, blood cells, kidneys, and/or brain. The inflammation can lead to organ damage that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues.
The most common form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The chronic inflammation associated with SLE can occur in many different tissues and organs, leading to different types of presentations and making it challenging to diagnose. Systemic lupus can affect the skin, brain, eyes, mouth, lungs, heart, kidneys, intestines, and joints. If lupus is limited to the skin, it’s known as cutaneous lupus.
Anyone at any age can acquire the disease, though most lupus patients are women between the ages of 15 and 44. Currently, there is no cure for lupus, but treatment can help control the autoimmune response and reduce symptoms.
A definitive diagnosis of lupus can take years, and it's often based on a fluctuating pattern of clinical symptoms, like skin rashes and joint pain. Lupus is often diagnosed using an anti-nuclear antibody blood test (ANA), which identifies autoantibodies that attack your body's own tissues and cells. Taken together, the symptoms and diagnostic tests help point to a diagnosis of lupus.
Experts believe that multiple predisposing factors may work together to cause lupus. Genetics, infections stress, and certain medications can contribute to your risk of developing lupus. The condition affects women more often than men, and symptoms typically begin between ages 15 and 45.
Lupus is not contagious. The condition often causes a rash, and many people fear catching a rash, but the rash that is associated with lupus is caused by an internal reaction of the body’s own immune system, and it doesn’t come from anything that you can catch from someone else.
Some people have a genetic predisposition to lupus, but you can develop the condition if you don’t have a family history of lupus, and you don’t necessarily have to develop it if you have family members who have lupus. The hereditary pattern of inheritance and the specific genes involved in lupus are not known.
An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissue. Most of the time, a specific type of tissue (such as skin, nerves, or joints) is targeted when a person has an autoimmune disease. Lupus is an autoimmune disease in which several tissue types are attacked, and this is why it causes many different effects.
Medication-induced lupus is a rare condition in which symptoms of lupus develop as a result of taking certain medications. The effects can begin when taking the triggering medication for three to six months, and the symptoms resolve after stopping the medication—but it can take up to a year for the symptoms to go away. Drug-induced lupus can be managed with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), steroids, or hydroxychloroquine.
The body’s immune system is a group of cells and proteins that work together to fight infections and mediate healing and repair. A healthy immune system is always working and fighting infectious organisms, usually getting rid of them before a person can even get sick. Often, an unhealthy immune system causes autoimmune effects and a tendency to get frequent or severe infections.
Neonatal lupus is a rare condition in which a newborn baby has features of lupus. Most babies with the condition are born to mothers who do not have lupus. The most common effects are rash and sun sensitivity. Blood clotting problems and heart disease can occur as well. The condition resolves on its own before the baby’s first birthday, and supportive treatment may be necessary to prevent long-term health effects while the condition resolves.
SLE, the most common type of lupus, is often referred to simply as “lupus.” This chronic condition usually affects skin, joints, and overall wellbeing. Sometimes it damages the kidneys or other organs. SLE is associated with lupus risk factors, and it occurs without a specific trigger or cause. Medications, including steroids and hydroxychloroquine, are used to control the symptoms, but SLE isn’t curable.
Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus facts and statistics. Updated October 6, 2016.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lupus in women. Updated October 17, 2018.
American Lung Association. Lung cancer fact sheet. May 27, 2020.
National Organization for Rare Disorders. Neonatal lupus. 2018.
Lupus Foundation of America. Understanding the genetics of lupus.