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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Rheumatology :: Dermatomyositis :: Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis :: Osteoporosis ::
Psoriatic Arthritis:: Scleroderma

What is SLE?

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body (skin, joints, and/or organs inside the body such as kidney, heart, brain etc). SLE is also called as ‘Lupus’ in short.

Chronic means that the signs and symptoms tend to last for many weeks to months. Usually duration longer than six weeks is considered chronic. But often, SLE may last for many years.

What is the cause of SLE?

In lupus, body’s immune system- which is the part of the body that fights infections from viruses, bacteria etc.- behaves in an abnormal manner. Normally immune system produces proteins called antibodies that attack organisms and protect the body from these invaders. In SLE, these antibodies start targeting body’s own organs such as skin, joints, kidney and cause serious and sometimes irreversible damage. Thus, Lupus is an “autoimmune” disease. What causes immune system to function against body’s own tissues is unknown at present and is an area of intensive scientific research worldwide.

What is ‘autoimmune’?

The word "auto" means "self". “Autoimmune” means body’s immune system cannot tell the difference between foreign invaders and body’s own healthy tissues. In autoimmune diseases, generally immune system creates ‘auto-antibodies’ that attack and destroy healthy tissues.Antibodies which attack body’s own healthy tissues are called “auto-antibodies”. These auto-antibodies cause inflammation, pain, swelling, fever and damage in various parts of the body such as skin, joints (hand joints, wrists, elbows, knees, spine etc), muscles, kidney, brain, intestines, and endocrine glands like thyroid.

What makes immune system to behave in this way is not known. Scientific research points to the possibility of some genetic factors, viruses, and environmental factors (diet, smoking, radiation etc) contributing to autoimmune process. Rheumatology and Immunology are branches of medical science which deal with the malfunctioning of immune system.

Some examples of autoimmune diseases

Examples of autoimmune diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, SLE, scleroderma, dermatomyositis, ankylosing spondylitis, vasculitis, Thyroid diseases (which may look like Goiter) like Grave’s disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. In addition, some types of anemia’s, heart diseases, diabetes, kidney and liver diseases are a result of autoimmune processes. Rheumatologists provide expertise in diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases.

How severe can SLE be?

Lupus can range from mild to life-threatening disease. The severity of lupus depends on which organ in the body is mainly involved. If major organs like kidney, brain, heart are involved, patients will have severe disease and may die due to complications if not treated in time. Sometimes, a mild disease may suddenly become very serious within few days to weeks. Hence, it is very important to be under constant care of a rheumatologist with periodic visits once every 2-3 months.Lupus is also a disease of flares (the symptoms worsen and you feel ill) and remissions (the symptoms improve and you feel better). With good medical care, most people with lupus can lead a full life.Who are more likely to develop SLE?

People of all races and ethnic groups can develop lupus. It strikes mostly women of childbearing age (15-44 years). However, men, children, and teenagers develop lupus, too. It is believed that around 5 million people throughout the world have a form of lupus.

Dispelling some myths about Lupus

  • Lupus is not contagious, not even through sexual contact. A person cannot "catch" lupus from someone or "give" lupus to someone.
  • Lupus is not like or related to cancer. Cancer is a condition of malignant, abnormal tissues that grow rapidly and spread into surrounding tissues, as described above. On the other hand, Lupus is an “autoimmune” disease.
  • Lupus is not like or related to HIV (Human Immune Deficiency Virus) or AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome). In HIV or AIDS the immune system is underactive; in lupus, the immune system is overactive.