For anyone living with lupus, or friends and family of someone who has received a diagnosis of it, you know that this disease can be debilitating. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, meaning that your body’s immune system begins to attack your tissues and organs. Severity can range widely, and it’s often hard to diagnose because some of the most common symptoms are similar to many other conditions.

Lupus can appear differently for different people, and experts agree that no two people ever present the same. But many people with lupus or relatives of those with the condition are curious if it’s a hereditary disease or something that occurs because of environmental exposure.

In truth, while lupus can be linked to genetic or hereditary causes, environmental exposure is also equally important. According to the Lupus Organization of America, there’s a strong link that hereditary patterns can contribute to a person developing lupus. In 2010, genetic researchers were able to uncover 30 genetic variations that connected with lupus, and today, that figure has expanded to 100 variations.

But epigenetics has also been shown to be involved in the development of lupus. This means that your environment also plays a role in how your genetics are being expressed.

Is lupus genetic in dogs?

Lupus isn’t limited to humans and can also be found in dogs, which is known as canine lupus. As with human lupus, a direct cause is still not fully understood, but genetics as well as environmental factors are also considered primary determiners.

Promising research into the TLR7 gene

Most recently, a 2022 study suggests that the Toll-like receptor (TLR) 7 gene could potentially be one of the primary genetic drivers that trigger lupus in humans. TLRs are a class of proteins that recognize and bind to other molecules. Specifically, TLR7 is a gene found on the X chromosome that plays a critical role in activating your immune system.

This gene regulates the identification of single-stranded RNA-based pathogens such as viruses, effectively triggering an immune response by encouraging your immune system to begin B cell production. In short, an overactive TLR7 gene could misidentify your body’s tissues and organs as invading viruses, leading to excessive B cell production and the onset of lupus.

But it’s important to note that this hypothesis is still young, and more research is needed to create a definitive conclusion. While the 2022 study engaged in genetic adjustments to look at the effects of the TLR7 gene in mice populations, no human studies have attempted the same methods. Instead, researchers conducted reviews of people with lupus and found preliminary links between coding mutations on the TLR7 gene and lupus in humans.

But don’t forget the environmental component

While strong evidence exists that lupus can be genetic in origin — or at least increase a person’s risk of developing it — most experts agree that genes alone won’t trigger it in most people.

Instead, environmental factors also play a role. More recent research continues to suggest that a wide range of factors can all contribute to developing lupus, such as:

  • medication
  • exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun or even lightbulbs
  • emotional stress
  • physical injuries
  • pregnancy and giving birth
  • strenuous activities

Who is most likely to get lupus?

Anecdotally, lupus is often referred to as a “woman’s disease” or a “family disease.” And while it can develop in all sexes, people assigned female at birth are more likely to receive a lupus diagnosis. While it’s possible that estrogen production plays a role in the onset of lupus, no link has been proven.

And specific ethnic groups — those of African, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American descent — have a higher risk of developing it.

Lupus is a difficult disease to diagnose because many of the symptoms are similar to other more easily identifiable conditions. As a result, this means that a person can live with the disease for years but not know the underlying cause for the symptoms they’re experiencing.

And because there’s currently no cure, delayed diagnosis can mean that people live with debilitating symptoms for years before getting proper treatment. If you’re concerned about whether or not you’re getting the correct treatment, it never hurts to get a second opinion. This process is usually covered by Medicare. And there are telemedicine options nowadays as well.

There’s a wide range of lupus symptoms, and it’s important to keep in mind that the frequency and severity of them can vary widely among people with lupus. Symptoms may not be a constant fixture in a person’s life. Lupus is a disease that is often marked by flares — moments where symptoms are significantly worse and result in you feeling ill — and remission.

Some of the most commonly reported lupus symptoms include:

  • Muscle and joint pain: Pain and stiffness may be present, but swelling is also possible.
  • Fever: Unexplained in origin, these fevers are usually higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Rash: Rashes can occur anywhere. But the most consistent one is a butterfly-shaped rash that appears on your face across your nose and cheeks. These can also appear in sun-exposed areas such as your face, upper chest, and arms.
  • Chest pain: In particular, people with lupus may experience pain when breathing.
  • Hair loss: Bald spots are common, but hair loss can also be caused by medications.
  • Oral and nasal sores: Sores in your mouth and nose are very common.
  • Raynaud’s disease: This is where your fingers and toes turn blue or white or feel numb when you’re stressed or cold.
  • Persistent headaches: Headaches that last for more than two weeks should be examined by your doctor.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue can be extreme and is often linked with anemia.
  • Sensitivity to sunlight: Sensitivity to sunlight or fluorescent light exposure can occur.
  • Unexplained swelling: Swelling may often occur around your eyes as well as in your hands and feet.

It’s important to remember that common lupus symptoms can also be present for other conditions. For example, joint pain and swelling can also be a symptom of arthritis. Meanwhile, numbness in your feet or hands can also be a symptom of more progressive diabetes.

If you think you might have lupus, you’ll want to talk with a doctor or healthcare professional. They may ask you to describe your symptoms and the severity of them as well as how often they occur. Keeping a journal of your symptoms and flare-ups, along with info such as the weather and what you ate, can be extremely helpful for a doctor’s understanding of your disease.

Additionally, a doctor may ask if you have a family history of the disease. While having family members with lupus doesn’t automatically mean that you will have it too, it can raise your risk.

Note that no single test can uncover lupus. Instead, a doctor will perform several tests to look for signs of lupus. Common tests you might undergo include:

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that currently doesn’t have a cure. While managing symptoms is possible, diagnosis is often delayed because common lupus symptoms are similar to those found in other diseases.

To date, evidence suggests that even when genetic abnormalities linked with lupus are present, they’re normally not enough to cause lupus to develop. Instead, environmental factors are equally influential.

If you suspect that your symptoms might be linked to lupus, don’t delay speaking with a doctor to get tested and begin a management plan.