Facts to Know

  • 90% of lupus patients are women of child-bearing age.
  • Lupus is more common in Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians than in Caucasians.
  • About 75 out of every 100,000 people have lupus.
  • There are 5.5 new cases per 100,000 people each year.
  • African Americans are twice as likely as Caucasians to develop lupus.
  • Most lupus patients are diagnosed between the ages of 15 and 45.

What is lupus?

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (also known as lupus or SLE) is a chronic disease that can affect any part of the body. Lupus is an autoimmune disorder, which means your body's immune system attacks healthy cells and tissue. In lupus, the overactive immune system produces antibodies that attack various tissue and organs, including the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, and brain. Some people experience only mild rashes and arthritis. Others suffer debilitating fever, fatigue, joint pain, or severe organ and/or life-threatening disease.

Lupus can be hard to diagnose. It is a disease of spontaneous flares and remissions and is likely to manifest differently in different patients. Almost all people with lupus have joint pain and develop arthritis. Frequently affected joints are the fingers, hands, wrists, and knees. Living with lupus is a tremendous challenge, mainly due to the unpredictable nature of the disease. Rarely, lupus complications can be fatal.

What causes lupus?

The simple answer is we don't know. Researchers suspect a complicated relationship between an individual's inherited genes, hormones, and environment that works against a patient over time to cause lupus. The genetic link is not completely understood, but a person's risk for developing lupus is 20 times higher than the general population if they have a brother or sister with the disease. Women are nine times more likely than men to develop lupus, leading researchers to believe there is a hormonal component to developing the disease as well. Some groups, such as African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, get lupus more commonly and with more severe symptoms. African Americans with lupus are also more likely to develop renal disease and progress to end-stage renal disease. Finally, researchers are also looking into the association between exposure to certain environmental toxins such as cigarette smoke, silica, and mercury to better understand the link between exposure and lupus.

Common Autoantibodies

SLE is a disease of autoantibodies. Normal antibodies protect against infections; lupus autoantibodies are directed against the body’s healthy organs and tissues. Common autoantibodies include:

  • ANA is the most sensitive lupus antibody. However, it is not specific to lupus, meaning that people without lupus can have an ANA positive.
  • Anti-dsDNA is the most specific lupus antibody.
  • Anti-Smith
  • Anti-RNP
  • Anti-SSA/Ro and SSB/La is also seen in Sjögren’s syndrome.
  • Anti-phospholipid antibodies are associated with blood clots.

Lupus Triggers

  • Infections
  • Hormones
  • Sun exposure
  • Other environmental factors

Complications of Lupus

Long-term lupus complications include lupus- or medication-related organ and tissue damage. Complications can affect different organs in the body.

  • Pregnancy complications: Lupus increases the risk of pregnancy-related complications such as preeclampsia, preterm birth, and miscarriage.
  • Infection: Lupus and its treatments can weaken the immune system, making people more susceptible to many infections.
  • Early atherosclerosis and heart disease: People with lupus are more likely to have heart attacks and strokes than those without lupus. Your doctor should check for risk factors and treat high blood pressure, cholesterol, and other risk factors early and aggressively.
  • Kidney damage: Without proper treatment, lupus can cause kidney damage leading in some people to kidney failure, the leading cause of death in people with lupus.
  • Osteoporosis: Some lupus medications can cause bone thinning. This should be prevented and treated before fractures and damage to the bones occur.