Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body's immune system attacks its own cells and tissues, especially the skin, joints, blood, and kidneys. No one knows what causes the immune system to go awry, but in lupus, this autoimmune attack produces a host of symptoms, which vary widely in types and intensity from one patient to the next.
Experts estimate there are 500,000 to 1.5 million Americans who have been diagnosed with lupus. Only about 10 percent of people with the condition have a parent or sibling with the illness, and only about 5 percent of children born to parents with lupus eventually develop it. That's why environmental factors such as stress, illness, and ultraviolet light are believed to play a role in the onset of lupus. And because the disease afflicts women more than men, some experts suspect that hormones play a role.
There are actually three types of lupus: systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), discoid, and drug-induced. SLE is the most severe kind, the type most people have, and the kind that can affect various organs and body systems. Discoid affects only the skin. Drug-induced lupus results from taking certain drugs, such as hydralazine, which is used to treat high blood pressure, and procainamide, which is used to treat irregular heart rhythms.
Almost everyone who has lupus experiences extreme fatigue, which is one reason why it may sometimes be confused with hypothyroidism. People with lupus may also suffer from joint pain, a low-grade fever, anemia, and a rash. They may also have hair loss, kidney problems, and Raynaud's phenomenon, in which the fingers turn white in reaction to cold temperatures. But many times, the symptoms of lupus are vague, and they often come and go, making it hard to figure out exactly what is going on.
Like thyroid disease, diagnosing lupus involves blood tests. The presence of certain autoantibodies is often a telltale sign that you have lupus and not a thyroid problem.
However, having lupus does not mean that you do not also have a thyroid problem. In fact, having lupus raises your risk for other autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto's disease and Graves' disease. That's why you should also ask your doctor to do a thyroid test. Treating a thyroid problem can lessen the symptoms caused by lupus.