“Medical students are often told ‘Know lupus and you know medicine,’” says Dr. Daniel Wallace, rheumatologist, in his book The Lupus Book. “Understanding the immunology of lupus will help us better understand AIDS, infections in general, allergies and cancer,” Wallace says. Just like lupus, those diseases are immune-related disorders. The factors that cause lupus go to the core of how the immune system works and advances in understanding it often have a spillover effect to the insight into other disorders, the author says.
While lupus affects up to 1.4 million people, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), a number of polls show that public awareness of the disease is poor.
Lupus is an auto-immune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly starts attacking its own tissues and organs. It’s a chronic inflammatory condition that can affect one or more organs, including the skin, blood, joints, heart, lungs and kidneys.
There are four different types of lupus but the most common type is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) which can affect different systems in the body and whose severity ranges from mild to life threatening. Most often a mention of simply “lupus” refers to this type of the disease since about 70 percent of lupus cases are systemic. In about half of the systemic cases, a major organ will be affected.
Nobody knows what exactly triggers lupus, but researchers believe it’s a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Ninety percent of lupus cases are among women. Lupus is three times more common in African-American than in white women and also more common in Hispanic, Asian, and American Indian women. African-American and Hispanic women develop symptoms at an earlier age than other women and African-American women have more severe involvement of internal organs, especially the kidneys, according to the DHHS.
Lupus and Infections
Infections are a common problem for people with lupus and they tend to last longer and require extended treatment, compared to people who don’t have lupus. People with lupus may be more likely to get infections, says Dr. John Davis Jr., rheumatologist and director of the Lupus Clinic at University of California, San Francisco. “They [patients with lupus] are more at risk because they have abnormalities in their immune system and most importantly take medications that suppresses the immune system,” Davis says.
A way to safeguard against infections is to work closely with a rheumatologist and report immediately any fevers, Davis says. Wallace recommends in his book that people with lupus exercise common sense and try to minimize their risk factors for catching an infection.