Lupus, Selena Gomez's Autoimmune Disease, Explained

Women disproportionately suffer from the disease.
Danny Moloshok / Reuters

In an interview with Billboard magazine this week, Selena Gomez confirmed she's been struggling with an autoimmune disease that forced her to take a step back from her work and cancel tours in 2013 and 2014.

"I was diagnosed with lupus, and I’ve been through chemotherapy," she told Billboard. "That’s what my break was really about. I could’ve had a stroke."

What is lupus?

Lupus can be difficult to diagnose because its symptoms -- including joint pain, chronic fatigue, fever, shortness of breath and skin lesions that get worse when exposed to sunlight -- are common to many other diseases and conditions. The most distinctive lupus symptom is a butterfly-shaped facial rash that extends across both cheeks, but it doesn't occur in every case.

Complications from lupus include the increased risk of stroke that Gomez cited, as well as inflammation that can cause kidney damage, blood clots, anemia, cardiovascular disease and an increased risk of pneumonia.

About 1.5 million people are currently living with lupus, most of whom develop the disease between the ages of 15 and 44, according to the Lupus Foundation. Lupus is most common among women, particularly those of Asian, Hispanic, Native American or African-American decent, according to the the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Nobody is totally sure what causes lupus, but certain triggers, like sunlight, infection or medication, can prompt an outbreak. And while there's currently no cure, people who suffer from lupus can take measures to manage the disease that include medication and lifestyle changes to help prevent flare ups.

While mild cases of lupus can be treated with anti-inflammatory drugs, more severe cases could require chemotherapy drugs that reduce the immune system's activity, though they are administered in lower doses than what cancer patients typically receive.

Let's hope Gomez's candor about her condition will bring greater awareness about the 5 million people suffering from lupus worldwide.

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