What Is Lupus?

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
September 27, 2023
What Is Lupus?

Lupus is Latin for wolf. In the 1200s, a doctor used the word to describe marks on a face that suggested wolf bites. Here's what you should know about lupus.

What is lupus?

Lupus is the Latin word for wolf, first used for the disease in the 1200s, when a doctor saw marks on a face that looked like wolf bites. The full name is systemic lupus erythematosus. Nine out of 10 lupus patients are women.

Like multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes, lupus is an autoimmune disease. Your immune system protects you against viruses and bacteria that could cause illness. Lupus attacks healthy tissue, mistaking your body for an enemy. If you have lupus, your immune system could damage your skin, joints, and organs, creating symptoms that last at least six weeks, and often for years. The attacks cause inflammation and pain.

Because your immune system may attack many parts of your body, lupus symptoms are varied, and the disease is difficult to diagnose. Lupus is sometimes called an imitator; doctors can mistake it for rheumatoid arthritis, blood disorders, fibromyalgia, diabetes, thyroid problems, Lyme disease, and heart, lung, muscle, and bone diseases. On average, you won’t get a lupus diagnosis until six years after the first symptoms present.

Lupus is not contagious, and it is not related to cancer or HIV.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: How Do You Get Lupus?


Lupus symptoms

The symptoms of lupus can be mild, intense, or even life-threatening. They include:

Perhaps the most distinctive and best-known sign is the lupus rash, which runs across the cheeks and nose in a butterfly shape.

Over time, lupus can cause:

  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Pulmonary issues
  • Inflamed kidneys
  • Thyroid problems
  • Osteoporosis
  • Seizures

Lupus has flare-ups, but you may be able to stay very busy in between the worst periods. The actress and pop singer Selena Gomez, for example, has lupus and required a kidney transplant. During flare-ups, Selena has had to cancel tours, but she returns to singing. The singer Toni Braxton has never cancelled a performance because of her lupus.

What causes lupus?

Hormones, genes, and exposure to triggers in the environment may all play a role.

Some women have more lupus symptoms when estrogen levels are higher than usual — before their periods or during pregnancy. But it isn’t known how estrogen affects lupus. Taking estrogen for birth control or during menopause does not increase symptoms in women with lupus.

There are about 50 genes that are more common in people with lupus than the general population. Their role is unknown.

It is possible for only one out of an identical twin pair to develop lupus even though they live together, with the same environmental exposures. If you have lupus, however, your identical twin has a 30 percent chance of having lupus, and a fraternal twin 10 percent chance.

You can develop lupus even though no one in your family has it, although other autoimmune diseases are probably present.

Lupus is less common among whites than among people of African and other descents.

A likely scenario is that a virus or chemical triggers a reaction in people with many of those 50 genes. Sunlight, infections like Epstein-Barr, and silica dust have triggered flare-ups and first-time cases. Some scientists suspect sulfa drugs and antibiotics that make people more sensitive to the sun, exhaustion, life events that cause intense emotion, and physical stress.

Early diagnosis is a big advantage. Several medications can slow the progress of your illness.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: Foods That Relieve Symptoms of RA and Lupus


September 27, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN