While the number of people diagnosed with lupus has more than tripled over the past four decades, researchers remain baffled, for the most part, as to what exactly causes the autoimmune disease.

Previous studies have pointed to gender, ethnicity (lupus is two to three times more prevalent among women of color than it is among Caucasian women) and even the use of some prescription drugs as risk factors, but a recent study conducted at the Mayo Clinic has uncovered another possible risk -- the bacteria staph, short for Staphylococcus aureus.

In the study, published online this month in The Journal of Immunology, even small amounts of the pervasive bacteria caused mice to develop a lupus-like disease, with kidney disease and autoantibodies like those found in the blood of lupus patients.

"We think this ... could be an important clue to what may cause or exacerbate lupus in certain genetically predisposed patients," said Vaidehi Chowdhary, M.D., a Mayo Clinic rheumatologist and co-author of the study.

The next step, Dr. Chowdhary explains, is to study lupus patients to see if the staph protein in question plays a similar role in humans. "Our hope is to confirm these findings in lupus patients and hopefully prevent flares," he said in a release.

Lupus symptoms may come and go, but the times when a person is having symptoms are called flares, which can range from mild, such as dizzy spells or anemia, to severe, including pain or swelling in joints, red rashes and hair loss.

Mayo Clinic researchers are also hoping to uncover whether eradicating staph among people who are at risk for lupus can help prevent onset of the disease altogether.

Staph is commonly found on the skin or in the nose and can cause infections ranging from pneumonia to food poisoning. But skin infections are the most common, experts say, and are more likely to occur if you have a cut or scratch, or have contact with a person or surface that has staph bacteria.

According to the Mayo Clinic, previous research on people has shown that carrying staph bacteria is linked to other autoimmune diseases, such as psoriasis, Kawasaki disease and graulomatosis with polyangiitis.

Related on HuffPost:

Celebrities With Autoimmune Diseases
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  • Venus Williams

    Last fall, tennis superstar Venus Williams announced she has Sjogren's syndrome, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/01/venus-williams-withdraws-us-open-sjogrens-syndrome_n_944660.html" target="_hplink">telling the Associated Press</a> that the disease sapped her energy and made it difficult for her to compete. With Sjogren's, a person's white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands, leading to issues like dry eyes and dry mouth, <a href="http://www.sjogrens.org/home/about-sjogrens-syndrome" target="_hplink">according to the Sjogren's Syndrome Foundation,</a> as well as more serous complications, including extreme fatigue. It is one of the most prevalent autoimmune disorders, <a href="http://www.sjogrens.org/home/about-sjogrens-syndrome" target="_hplink">the organization states,</a> and nine out of 10 sufferers are women. The good news? After several months off, Williams had a triumphant return to the court in late November.

  • Elisabeth Hasselbeck

    In 2009, "The View" co-host released a new book all about eating gluten-free, after she and her doctors spent years struggling to get the correct diagnosis of celiac disease. <a href="http://articles.nydailynews.com/2009-05-04/entertainment/17923224_1_celiac-disease-gluten-intolerance-gluten-free" target="_hplink">According to the <em>Daily News,</em></a> it was being a contestant on the show "Survivor" and eliminating gluten from her diet that allowed her to finally realize what was wrong. The digestive condition that is set-off by contact with the protein, which is why sufferers like Hasselbeck have to avoid it altogether.

  • Kim Kardashian

    Kim Kardashian was diagnosed with psoriasis on her reality TV show, heading to the dermatologist after she found flaky, pink patches on her skin. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/kim-kardashian-diagnosed-psoriasis/story?id=14152505#.TtZjmlZxCKM" target="_hplink">According to ABC News,</a> reps from the National Psoriasis Foundation have expressed concern for the star. "Celebrities with psoriasis are under intense pressure, and stress is a trigger for psoriasis," <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/kim-kardashian-diagnosed-psoriasis/story?id=14152505#.TtZjmlZxCKM" target="_hplink">a spokesperson told the news outlet.</a> <a href="http://www.psoriasis.org/about-psoriasis" target="_hplink">According to the NPF's website,</a> there are five types of psoriasis, but the most common form, called plaque psoriasis, appears as raised, red patches -- like Kardashian's -- that occur when the body sends out faulty signals, which speed up the growth cycle of skin cells.

  • Toni Braxton

    Singer Toni Braxton lives with lupus, an autoimmune disorder that can impact a person's skin, joints, kidney, brain and other organs. Depending on what part of the body is affected, symptoms can include abdominal pain, patchy skin and serious fatigue. Braxton revealed she had the disease in an episode of her reality TV show. <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1383433/Toni-Braxton-tells-family-suffers-lupus-reality-TV-show.html" target="_hplink">According to the<em> Daily Mail,</em> </a>Braxton's brother also has lupus and her uncle died from complications from the disease.

  • Jay Cutler

    <a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=ms-thegameface051608" target="_hplink">According to Yahoo! Sports,</a> the football star travels everywhere with a blood testing kit given he has Type 1 (often known as juvenile) diabetes, <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/type-1-diabetes/DS00329" target="_hplink">which the Mayo Clinic describes</a> as a chronic condition whereby the pancreas produces too little or no insulin. "This whole thing is a little scary sometimes, but it's not like you have a choice," <a href="http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=ms-thegameface051608" target="_hplink">Cutler told Yahoo!.</a> "It's part of your life, you know?"

  • Kathleen Turner

    "I remember vividly finding out that I had arthritis," <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/spotlight/2001-06-01-turner-arthritis.htm" target="_hplink">rheumatoid arthritis sufferer and actress Kathleen Turner told <em>USA Today </em>back in 2001.</a> "I was on my way to my daughter's school for a meeting with her kindergarten teacher. All I could think about was how I would deal with it, how would I be a mother, how would I carry on?" But carry on she did, and Turner has since drawn attention to the painful autoimmune disease. For reasons not yet understood, it causes the body to attack its own tissues, particularly a thin membrane surrounding joints, <a href="http://www.arthritis.org/types-what-is-rheumatoid-arthritis.php" target="_hplink">the Arthritis Foundation reports.</a>

  • Missy Elliott

    When rapper Missy Elliott fell out of the public eye a few years back, it was because she was quietly dealing with Graves' disease, according to <em>USA Today.</em> <a href="http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2011/06/missy-elliott-reveals-graves-disease-battle/1" target="_hplink">The autoimmune disease impacts the thyroid and can lead to goiter, fatigue, insomnia, eye problems and more. <a href="http://content.usatoday.com/communities/entertainment/post/2011/06/missy-elliott-reveals-graves-disease-battle/1" target="_hplink">Indeed, according to <em>USA Today,</em></a> Elliott's condition was so debilitating, the star couldn't write or drive a car.

  • Montel Williams

    Former talkshow host Montel Williams announced back in 1999 that he had multiple sclerosis, the autoimmune disease that impacts the brain and spinal cord. He then began an effort to raise awareness and funding for research, starting <a href="http://www.montelms.org/" target="_hplink">The Montel Williams Foundation.</a> "When the neurologist said those three words -- 'You have MS' -- it hit me like a brick," <a href="http://www.montelms.org/" target="_hplink">Williams said on his website.</a> "It became clear that I had a choice to make. I could spend the rest of my life feeling sorry for myself as the victim of a tragic fate. Or I could view my illness as a call to action," he continued.

  • Shannen Doherty

    <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/01/celebs-crohns_n_913641.html#s318537&title=Shannen_Doherty" target="_hplink">As Health.com reports,</a> back in 1999 the former "90210" star and "Dancing With The Stars" contestant told <em>Star</em> magazine she has Crohn's disease. The actress has preferred to keep most details private. Crohn's affects the gastrointestinal tract, and, according to the NIH, people with the disease may have chronic inflammation of the digestive tract, leading to constipation or regular diarrhea.