When pop star Selena Gomez took a sudden break from performing in 2014, the tabloid gossip mill went into hyper-drive. Selena was in rehab. Selena was jealous about Justin Bieber’s paramours. Selena was pregnant or trying to be. Selena had substance abuse problems.

In the first half of 2015 Gomez revealed the real reason she had taken a break from her fans: She was being treated for lupus.

Gomez's announcement brings new awareness to this autoimmune disease, which affects 1.5 million Americans, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Despite the number of well-known people who have had lupus — including singer Seal, actress Kristen Johnston, director/producer Nick Cannon and Lady Gaga, who says she is “border-line positive” for the disease — lupus is not that well known.

Mask of the wolf

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory disease that develops when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own tissues and organs. It’s called lupus — the Latin word for "wolf" — for its most distinctive feature, the “mask of the wolf,” a facial rash resembling the facial markings of a wolf. The inflammation caused by lupus can affect many different parts of the body, including the skin, brain, blood cells, joints and kidneys. The symptoms may be mild or severe, and they often flare up and then subside.

Lupus strikes about nine times more women than men and is much more prevalent in women of color, according to the Lupus Foundation of America. Most people get it when they are between 15 and 44, but it can strike at any age.

Systemic lupus accounts for about 70 percent of all cases of lupus and affects a major organ, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys and brain, in about half of these cases. Lupus that attacks only the skin accounts for an estimated10 percent of lupus cases. Lupus caused by high dosages of medications or a type that involves another connective tissue disease make up the rest.

Although there's no cure for lupus yet, the right drug of combination of drugs may be able to keep the disease under control. Drugs most commonly used to treat lupus include steroids, anti-inflammatory medications, antimalarials and chemotherapy drugs (the latter are usually reserved for severe cases of lupus that attack major organ systems). Uncontrolled, the disease may lead to kidney failure and can be life-threatening.

Lupus symptoms

See a doctor right away if you suspect you may have lupus. The disease can be hard to diagnose — it's sometimes called "the great imitator" because the symptoms resemble those of so many other diseases, from arthritis to Lyme disease to diabetes. Here are the most common symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic and the Lupus Foundation of America:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever
  • A butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Swelling in the feet, legs, hands and/or around the eyes
  • Skin sores that get worse with sun exposure
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue in the cold or when you’re under stress
  • Dry eyes
  • Hair loss
  • Abnormal blood clotting
  • Chest pain upon deep breathing
  • Headaches, confusion and memory loss
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual itching, nausea, vomiting, leg swelling and chest pain (symptoms of kidney problems)

"We all make choices whether to reveal our lupus"

On average, it takes nearly six years for people with lupus to be correctly diagnosed after they first notice symptoms. In a survey of members by the Lupus Foundation of American, most people with lupus reported they were coping well with their disease and that their friends and family were understanding and supportive. Pain, lifestyle changes and emotional issues were the hardest things they had to contend with, they said.

Gomez was diagnosed with lupus several years ago but chose to keep it quiet until recently. MTV contributor Christine Miserandino, who has had lupus since she was 18, was excited when Gomez went public with her diagnosis. "After I heard the news about Selena, I just wanted to reach out to her and hug her,” she told MTV News. “We all make choices whether to reveal our lupus or not. Selfishly, I’m thankful she did. This will help millions of new patients get diagnosed faster."

Gomez, who has been a UN ambassador since she was 17, has told reporters she’s ready to carry on. “My heart hasn’t changed,” she told USA Today. “I care about people...and I love my fans. My fans are the only thing that's been consistent in my life."

Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.