Lupus is an autoimmune disease — a condition in which the body mistakes its own healthy tissues as foreign invaders. As a result, the body wrongly attacks its own cells, which leads to inflammation and damage to various body tissues. Lupus can affect many parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and brain.

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Lupus affects one out of every 185 Americans, with more than 16,000 people developing the condition each year. Although lupus can occur at any age and in both men and women, 90 percent of those diagnosed with lupus are female. In addition, African Americans, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans are at an increased risk. The cause of the disorder is unknown. However, research indicates that a combination of genetic, environmental and possibly hormonal factors are involved.

At UCSF Medical Center experts diagnose and treat patients with lupus. Although there is no cure for lupus, effective treatment can greatly reduce symptoms and help maintain normal body functions.

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Although the severity and range of symptoms of lupus differ for each person, common symptoms include:

  • Painful or swollen joints and muscle pain
  • Unexplained fever
  • "Butterfly" rashes, most commonly across the bridge of nose and cheeks
  • Chest pain when breathing deeply, called pleurisy
  • Unusual hair loss
  • Sensitivity to the sun
  • Swelling, or edema, in the legs or around the eyes
  • Swollen glands
  • Extreme fatigue

Your doctor will begin by recording your complete medical history, including a description of your symptoms. You also will undergo a physical examination to check for any physical signs of the disease. In order to make a definitive diagnosis of lupus a number of tests may be used, including the following:

  • Antinuclear Antibody Test (ANA): This test identifies certain autoantibodies typically present in the blood of people with lupus. Most people with lupus test positive for ANA. However, a positive ANA result can occur due to infections and other rheumatic or immune diseases. In addition, healthy people without lupus also can test positive.
  • Other Blood Tests: Your doctor may order other blood tests for individual types of autoantibodies, which are more specific to people with lupus. These antibodies include anti-DNA and anti-ENA antibodies as well as serum complement levels. However, not all people with lupus have positive tests.
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There is currently no cure for lupus. However, for most people, effective treatment can greatly reduce symptoms and help maintain normal body functions. Treatment often includes:

  • Medications to reduce inflammation and activity of the immune system
  • Balancing rest with exercise
  • Maintaining a healthy diet

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Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.

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