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What is lupus?
Lupus is an autoimmune disease. This means that your immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues by mistake. This can damage many parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain.
There are several kinds of lupus:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common type. It can be mild or severe and can affect many parts of the body.
- Discoid lupus causes a red rash that doesn't go away
- Subacute cutaneous lupus causes sores after being out in the sun
- Drug-induced lupus is caused by certain medicines. It usually goes away when you stop taking the medicine.
- Neonatal lupus, which is rare, affects newborns. It is probably caused by certain antibodies from the mother.
What causes lupus?
The cause of lupus is unknown.
Who is at risk for lupus?
Anyone can get lupus, but women are most at risk. Lupus is two to three times more common in African American women than in white women. It's also more common in Hispanic, Asian, and Native American women. African American and Hispanic women are more likely to have severe forms of lupus.
What are the symptoms of lupus?
Lupus can have many symptoms, and they differ from person to person. Some of the more common ones are:
- Pain or swelling in joints
- Muscle pain
- Fever with no known cause
- Red rashes, most often on the face (also called the "butterfly rash")
- Chest pain when taking a deep breath
- Hair loss
- Pale or purple fingers or toes
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Swelling in legs or around eyes
- Mouth ulcers
- Swollen glands
- Feeling very tired
Symptoms may come and go. When you are having symptoms, it is called a flare. Flares can range from mild to severe. New symptoms may appear at any time.
How is lupus diagnosed?
There is no specific test for lupus, and it's often mistaken for other diseases. So it may take months or years for a doctor to diagnose it. Your doctor may use many tools to make a diagnosis:
- Medical history
- Complete exam
- Blood tests
- Skin biopsy (looking at skin samples under a microscope)
- Kidney biopsy (looking at tissue from your kidney under a microscope)
What are the treatments for lupus?
There is no cure for lupus, but medicines and lifestyle changes can help control it.
People with lupus often need to see different doctors. You will have a primary care doctor and a rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in the diseases of joints and muscles). Which other specialists you see depends on how lupus affects your body. For example, if lupus damages your heart or blood vessels, you would see a cardiologist.
Your primary care doctor should coordinate care between your different health care providers and treat other problems as they come up. Your doctor will develop a treatment plan to fit your needs. You and your doctor should review the plan often to be sure it is working. You should report new symptoms to your doctor right away so that your treatment plan can be changed if needed.
The goals of the treatment plan are to:
- Prevent flares
- Treat flares when they occur
- Reduce organ damage and other problems
Treatments may include drugs to:
- Reduce swelling and pain
- Prevent or reduce flares
- Help the immune system
- Reduce or prevent damage to joints
- Balance the hormones
Besides taking medicines for lupus, you may need to take medicines for problems that are related to lupus such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or infection.
Alternative treatments are those that are not part of standard treatment. At this time, no research shows that alternative medicine can treat lupus. Some alternative or complementary approaches may help you cope or reduce some of the stress associated with living with a chronic illness. You should talk to your doctor before trying any alternative treatments.
How can I cope with lupus?
It is important to take an active role in your treatment. It helps to learn more about lupus - being able to spot the warning signs of a flare can help you prevent the flare or make the symptoms less severe.
It is also important to find ways to cope with the stress of having lupus. Exercising and finding ways to relax may make it easier for you to cope. A good support system can also help.
NIH: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
- For Caregivers and Parents (Lupus Foundation of America)
- Immune System and Its Link to Rheumatic Diseases (American College of Rheumatology) Also in Spanish
- Lupus and Kidney Disease (Lupus Nephritis) (National Kidney Foundation)
- Lupus Nephritis (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)
- Neurological Sequelae of Lupus (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)
- What People with Lupus Need to Know about Osteoporosis (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases) Also in Spanish
- Systemic lupus erythematosus: MedlinePlus Genetics (National Library of Medicine)
Statistics and Research
- New Treatment Shows Promise in Reducing the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in People with Lupus (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases)
Journal Articles References and abstracts from MEDLINE/PubMed (National Library of Medicine)
Find an Expert
- Department of Health and Human Services, Office on Women's Health Also in Spanish
- Find a Rheumatologist (American College of Rheumatology)
- Lupus Foundation of America
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Also in Spanish
- Antinuclear antibody panel (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Collagen vascular disease (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Drug-induced lupus erythematosus (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Lupus nephritis (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (Medical Encyclopedia) Also in Spanish