What is Systemic Lupus?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 19 May 2018
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Systemic lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE, is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the body's own cells and tissues; all of the body's systems are potential targets. The disease affects many more women than men, and the cause is currently unknown, but it appears to involve several factors. In many cases, systemic lupus affects several various parts of the body at the same time, causing a wide range of symptoms that vary in severity. There is no known cure for SLE, although there are treatments available to help patients manage the disease.

When a patient has systemic lupus, the immune system attacks other body tissues including the skin, muscles, and nervous system. With this condition, the immune system produces abnormal antibodies that target tissues within the body rather than normal antibodies that attack foreign substances. This causes short or long-term inflammation in those tissues. These attacks are often called flares, and can last days or months before subsiding or moving on to another part of the body.


Systemic lupus affects women in disproportionate numbers; some estimates are that it affects about eight times more females than males. It can begin at any age, but the typical age of onset is between 20 to 45 years old, and it appears to affect those of African American, Chinese, and Japanese descent more often than the rest of the population. The exact cause is unknown, but some factors that may be involved include heredity, ultraviolet light, viruses, and certain medications.

With the potential to affect any bodily organ, systemic lupus is capable of causing a vast array of symptoms. Some of the milder ones that affect many patients include fatigue, low fever, body aches, arthritis, poor appetite, a butterfly shaped facial rash, sensitivity to sunlight or photosensitivity, skin rashes, and sores in the nose and mouth. More severe commonly reported symptoms include reduced circulation to fingers and toes at low temperatures, pericarditis — which is an inflammation of the tissue lining around the heart — and pleuritis or inflammation of the tissue surrounding the lungs.

Patients with systemic lupus can suffer a combination of symptoms at different times, and any organ of the body is at risk, including the kidneys, heart, liver, or even the brain. Inflammation of various organs can lead to painful symptoms or in extreme cases, organ failure. The blood vessels can also become inflamed, leading to reduced blood oxygen supply to the organs. If the brain becomes involved, the condition is called lupus celebritis; personality changes, seizures, or coma can result.

There is no known cure for systemic lupus, but there are some treatments available. Common treatment goals involve reducing the inflammation caused by flares and to suppress immune activity to prevent or reduce future flares. Anti-inflammatory drugs are commonly used as well as drugs to suppress immune system action. More severe cases require additional treatment. Patients should get plenty of rest, avoid added stress whenever possible, and follow their doctor's instructions.



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