Factors That May Cause Lupus

Daydreaming away by the window Portrait of a smiling young woman at home
PeopleImages/Getty Images

One of the first questions a newly diagnosed lupus patient often is what may have caused them to get the disease. Like many people who receive such news, there is an underlying belief that a single moment may have triggered the onset of lupus. Maybe they even picked it up from a stranger in a crowded bus or busy city street.

First of all, lupus isn't contagious. Second, even doctors and researchers are not sure what exactly causes lupus.

What they do know is that it is an autoimmune disease in which a person's immune system malfunctions, and causes the body to attack its own tissues.


Most researchers agree that genetics or heredity is at least one factor in determining a person propensity for developing lupus. To see if you fall in this category, review your family's medical history. Is there incidence of lupus in your immediate family? If so, you may be predisposed to lupus.

Remember, though, a family history of lupus does not mean an individual will get lupus, only that he or she is more susceptible. It is also important to understand that, presently, there is no scientific proof that genetics plays a key role, though researchers believe it is probable.


Another path researchers are walking down is environmental factors as a lupus trigger. Those environmental factors might include exposure to ultraviolet light (photosensitivity), smoking and exposure to smoking, stress, and exposure to toxins such as trichloroethylene in well water and silica dust.

Certain hair products and topicals were once believed to be lupus triggers, but that is no longer the case.

Hormones and Illness

Pregnant? The increase in hormones in your body could be a lupus trigger.

Research suggests that hormonal factors are linked to autoimmune disease, though research is still in its infancy and the link between the two is still nebulous.

For example, some studies find a correlation between increased risk of lupus and high levels of estrogen, but another study, which focused on hormone replacement therapy, did not show a link. Still, abnormal estrogen metabolism is considered a risk factor.

So are viruses and bacteria. Those with viruses like cytomegalovirus, parvovirus, and hepatitis C may eventually develop lupus, but a direct causal link has not been established. And the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) in children is linked to childhood lupus. Most people become infected with EBV, which is often asymptomatic (without symptoms) but commonly causes infectious mononucleosis.


It has been established that some medications are suspected triggers of lupus and flares. In fact, a subset of the disease, drug-induced lupus is based on this notion. This type of lupus is usually brought on by long-term use of certain medications (covered more specifically in types of lupus).

The major difference between drug-induced lupus and standard lupus or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is that, once the patient stops taking those medications, symptoms decline within days and weeks. But there is no cure for SLE.

The Combo Platter

Finally, most doctors believe it is a combination of these factors that cause the onset of lupus.

For example, it is assumed that a person with a family history of lupus that is exposed to certain medications or environmental factors is probably more susceptible to getting the disease than someone with only one of those causal factors.

But as we have said before, lupus is one of those mysterious diseases that doctors haven't quite pinned down. It won't be until the science catches up with the disease that we will truly understand what causes this autoimmune disease to occur.


"Drug-induced Lupus". June 2007. Lupus Foundation of America.