What is Lupus? An Introduction

Even after over 50 years, lupus is still a mysterious and misunderstood disease. Photo by Andrea Guerra via Flickr Creative Commons

Imagine marching out to a battlefield with a huge army. Now imagine seeing the enemy – and realizing that they look exactly like your own force. Once the fighting begins, you have no way to tell if the solider you just killed was really an enemy or one of your own. This is similar to what the body goes through when a person had lupus. The body’s defense forces, your immune system, attacks your own kidneys, skin, heart, lungs and joints as well as the infections it’s supposed to fight.

Right now, medical science doesn’t have concrete answers to how this fluke of the immune system happens. A person can develop lupus at almost any point in their life, though it’s much more common in young women. So far, there is no cure, though there are more treatment options being developed now than in any other time in history.

Symptoms are wide-ranging and can be different for each and every person. Some may only have fatigue while others might develop a rash across their cheeks (commonly called a “butterfly rash”). Some might have joint problems that may be diagnosed as arthritis, some may notice their hair falling out. Some have no symptoms at all while some might have dramatic changes in their health. The fact that symptoms vary wildly from person to person can make proper diagnosis a challenge and it’s common for lupus patients to be misdiagnosed more than once.

Lupus “attacks” in waves, called flares.

A flare happens when the immune system is more active and therefore, attacks the body more vigorously. Many things can trigger a flare: stress, infection, sunlight, weather changes, etc. Flares can manifest as increased fatigue, fevers, swollen joints and other internal inflammation, kidney problems, or a flare might not show any signs at all except for changes in your bloodwork.

Even though Lupus has no cure at this point, treatment options and lifestyle changes mean that lupus patients can live as long a life as anyone else.

While much progress has been made, there is also still a lot of misinformation and myths about Lupus. If you’ve recently been diagnosed, check out these sites for Lupus facts and materials to help you and your family better understand what Lupus is. You can also find more sites and information on my Resources page.

The Lupus Foundation of America is a great place to start. Check out their Lupus Fact Sheet, for a quick overview of Lupus symptoms, available treatments and other vital information.

The US National Library of Medicine has an interactive tutorial on the topic of Lupus, along with printable information.

Or, you can try the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS).

Continue the tour:

What is everyday life like for someone with Lupus?
Where can I find out more?