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What is systemic sclerosis (scleroderma)?

The word scleroderma means hard skin (sclero = hard, derma = skin), and this is the most visible symptom of systemic sclerosis. For this reason, the disease is sometimes just called scleroderma and many patients' organisations use that name.

However, it's very important to understand that this disease can affect other parts of the body in addition to the skin. Because it's not just the skin involved, many people prefer the name systemic sclerosis.

The word 'systemic' refers to a disease that can affect different organs or systems of the body. In these web pages we'll use the name systemic sclerosis throughout.

Systemic sclerosis can affect the joints, muscles, blood vessels and digestive system. It affects the lungs of about half the people with the condition, although this doesn't always cause symptoms. It can also affect the kidneys, but this is rare.

Systemic sclerosis is an autoimmune disease, which means the immune system attacks the body's own tissues. It's one of a number of conditions called connective tissue diseases.

Systemic sclerosis is rare, but women are 3–4 times more likely than men to develop it. It usually starts between the ages of 25–55 and only occasionally begins in children or in older people.

It's important not to confuse systemic sclerosis with a completely different disease called localised scleroderma (also called morphoea). In this disease there is thickening of the skin and soft tissues in a localised area of the body only, but other organs aren't involved.

Morphoea doesn't develop into systemic sclerosis, and these web pages aren't intended for people with morphoea.

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