Lupus is a disorder that causes flares of inflammation and tissue swelling. It can affect many different organs and parts of body, though signs and symptoms are most commonly isolated to the skin, joints, or kidneys. As with many other types of autoimmune disorders, the exact causes of lupus are not well understood. Most studies suggest that genetics plays a significant role in the development of symptoms, but acquired and environmental factors are likely to be involved as well. Ongoing medical research will likely help to pinpoint the causes of lupus and help doctors make better informed treatment decisions.
Flareups of lupus occur when a person's immune system begins to attack healthy body tissue. The immune system produces autoantibodies that may seek out cells in the skin, joint tissue, kidneys, liver, or heart. Over time, frequent episodes of inflammation lead to chronic pain, swelling, skin changes, and generalized symptoms of fever and fatigue. While the causes of lupus are not completely understood, doctors have been able to identify a few key risk factors. Women of reproductive age are at the highest risk, and it appears that people of African, Asian, and Hispanic descent are more likely to develop symptoms than other demographics.
Most professionals suspect that the majority of people who suffer from lupus were genetically predisposed to the condition. A large number of patients have familial histories of lupus or other autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis. Several studies on identical twins strengthen the genetic hypothesis, showing that if one sibling has lupus, the other is likely to develop the condition as well. Ongoing research hopes to reveal whether specific genes are missing or mutated in people with the disorder.
While genetics may be the primary cause of lupus, it is likely that environmental conditions are also involved. Overexposure to ultraviolet light from the sun appears to be a trigger in a large number of cases. Extreme physical exhaustion, mental and emotional stress, and certain viral illnesses, such as Epstein-Barr, may also precede lupus outbreaks. Research also shows that some medications, including penicillin and other antibiotics, may make some people more susceptible to lupus. Increased estrogen levels in both men and women also are commonly found during diagnostic tests, suggesting that hormone imbalances can contribute to the environmental and genetic causes of lupus.
Treatment for lupus depends on the severity of symptoms and the parts of the body affected. Many patients are able to overcome most of their symptoms by taking anti-inflammatory drugs and immune system-suppressing medications. As doctors continue to learn more about the causes of lupus, they will be able to focus treatment efforts on the underlying problems and possibly discover a cure.