Lupus, Explained in About 2 Minutes

Symptoms can depend on which organs are affected.

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Most autoimmune diseases target a specific organ. The immune system mistakes a normal, healthy organ as a foreign threat to the body and persistently attacks, causing inflammation and damage to the organ.

For example, alopecia areata is an autoimmune disease that attacks the hair follicles, causing hair loss. Ulcerative colitis is when the immune system attacks the colon (also called the large intestine), causing digestive distress and ulcers in the colon. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints, causing pain and swelling in the knuckles and other joints.

But lupus is one of a kind. Unlike other autoimmune diseases, lupus can cause the immune system to target just about any organ and breed inflammation throughout the body. Because of this, two individuals with lupus may experience entirely different symptoms, since the presentation of the disease depends on which organs are affected.

That said, there are some common symptoms of lupus:

  • A malar rash, which is a butterfly-shaped rash that spreads across both cheeks

  • Arthritis pain in some joints

  • Inflammation or swelling of the heart or lungs, which can cause chest pain that makes breathing uncomfortable

  • Sores in the mouth or nose

  • Low blood cell counts

  • And poor kidney function.

Most of the time, lupus appears around youth or early adulthood—especially among young women. In fact, lupus affects women 10 times more often than it affects men.

Once again, treatment for lupus can depend on which organs are being attacked by the immune system. Several of the medications for lupus involve containing the immune system to keep it from overreacting and harming the organs. This includes:

  • Antimalarial drugs

  • DMARDS, or disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs

  • Corticosteroids

  • Immunosuppressants

Individuals with lupus may need additional medications to help treat symptoms related to a specific organ. For example, some may need antihypertensive drugs to help treat high blood pressure, and some may need diuretics to improve fluid retention, according to the Lupus Foundation of America.

In other words, treatment for lupus is incredibly individualized, and most patients will work with a team of specialists (including rheumatologists, dermatologists, cardiologists, etc.) to reach their best health.

Without treatment, lupus can lead to serious complications due to the repeated attacks on essential organs. Complications of lupus include atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries), heart attacks, kidney disease, and stroke.

If you think lupus might be leaving its mark on your body, loop in your doctor to start lupus treatment ASAP.