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What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a hereditary disorder belonging to a category of diseases called “autoimmune” disorders, in which the immune system misperceives various parts as foreign, builds an immune response, and mounts an attack. Musicians Seal, Toni Braxton, and even Michael Jackson have reportedly been diagnosed with lupus. What is lupus? How is it diagnosed?

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
August 4, 2016
Episode #219

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British musician Seal, singer Toni Braxton, and entertainer Nick Cannon have all been diagnosed with lupus. Singer Lady Gaga even reports that she has "borderline" lupus—what is that?

In my previous episode, we read about a rather mysterious case of a facial rash after sun exposure. It initially appeared as sunburn, by far the most common cause for the rash on the face.  However, given the lack of healing through time with typical sunburn, it became clear that it was not the answer. Then later in the evaluation and follow up process, symptoms consistent with a lupus-like condition eventually became the prominent culprit. Furthermore, it turned out that the lupus symptoms were reversibly induced by a medication the patient was taking for acne, of all things. 

Therefore, it leaves us with the question: When is it really lupus? How is lupus diagnosed? What are its criteria?

What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease with the potential to affect a number of organs in the body. It tends to affect more women than men, and is more common among African Americans.

Lupus is short for Systemic Lupus Erythematosis (SLE), a hereditary disorder belonging to a category of diseases called “autoimmune” disorders. In autoimmune disorders (such as rheumatoid arthritis, Sjogren’s, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, etc) the body misperceives various parts as foreign then builds an immune response against these misunderstood anatomic structures and mounts an attack.  These attacks wreak havoc on these tissues in the body, causing distressful symptoms that often bring these patients to the doctor’s office.

Like other autoimmune disorders, the disease tends to flare up for a time period and then clear or improve during times of remission. 

Symptoms of Lupus

Lupus is a terrible disease because it can attack almost any organ in the body, producing numerous symptoms, and a picture that differs from one patient to the next. This makes it a challenge to diagnose. The severity of the disease also varies from person to person, even further contributing to a varied constellation of presentations. 

Diagnosis of Lupus

The word “lupus” may have crossed your path at some point.  Perhaps when you rather suddenly experienced a noticeable hair thinning (termed "alopecia"), when you were diagnosed with pleurisy as taking any deep breaths seemed to trigger a painful type of chest pain you had never experienced before, or when your joints seemed to catch on fire after a hard day’s work. All are very common ailments. Perhaps your doctor may have even “tested” your blood for lupus.

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