What Is Lupus? (Video)

Autoimmune disease causes mild to severe health problems

What is Lupus?

Across the United States, 1.5 million people are living with systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE) — better known by its common name, lupus. The symptoms and outcomes of this autoimmune disease can vary greatly, from mild joint and skin problems to life-threatening conditions affecting the heart, kidneys and/or nervous system.

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The incidence of lupus (SLE) has tripled since the 1970s while the cause still remains unknown. In the last decade, much has been discovered about this often debilitating disease. Lupus (SLE) occurs when the immune system is not functioning properly. The abnormal activity of the immune system causes tissue damage and illness. If lupus is not diagnosed early and properly treated, organ damage may occur.

As many lupus (SLE) patients know, the disease can be difficult to monitor and flares are unpredictable, in both frequency and severity.

Who is affected by lupus?

Ninety percent of patients with lupus (SLE) are female. Symptoms occur most often when women are in their childbearing years, between the ages of 13 and 44. This suggests a possible role for female hormones in the development of the disease.

Lupus (SLE) is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, Latinas and Asian Americans; it may occur in about 1 in 250 of these women. Genetics is involved in lupus with first-degree relatives of people with lupus having a 1 in 20 chance of developing lupus.

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How lupus affects other organs

There have been improvements in therapy and most patients with lupus (SLE) lead relatively normal lives. Kidney problems occur in nearly half of patients with lupus. Early onset arthrosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease are also reported in more than half of patients.

In a small percentage of patients, lupus (SLE) is a very serious disease with significant morbidity and mortality that is due to life-threatening infections, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease.

Because lupus (SLE) may affect several important organs, such as the kidneys, heart and brain and lead to serious complications, a multidisciplinary team approach is essential for both timely diagnosis and proper treatment.

Treatment for lupus

The type of treatment prescribed will depend on several factors, including the person’s age, overall health, medical history, the organs involved and severity of the disease. Lupus (SLE) is a condition that often changes and requires ongoing visits with a knowledgeable physician.

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For those with more severe cases, treatment includes immunosuppressive therapy mainly consisting of steroids (glucocorticoids) in combination with cytotoxic-chemotherapy medications.

Over the last decade, significant advances have been made in how lupus (SLE) is diagnosed and treated. This is due to many factors, including:

  • Better public awareness
  • Enhanced physician referral systems
  • More highly trained rheumatologists
  • Significant scientific advances
  • The development of new therapies for lupus

Cleveland Clinic rheumatologists at all sites are experienced in the care of patients with lupus (SLE). Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Rheumatic and Immunologic Diseases also provides a lupus clinic with access to rheumatologists who specialize in lupus (SLE) and other physician specialists, including nephrologists, dermatologists, preventive cardiologists and neurologists. The clinic is involved in investigational clinical trials that are open to all Cleveland Clinic patients with lupus (SLE) and other autoimmune diseases.

Contributor: Dr. Mehrnaz Hojjati


Howard Smith, MD

Howard Smith, MD, is a Staff Rheumatologist and Director of the Lupus Clinic at Cleveland Clinic.