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NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Trusted Health Information from the National Institutes of Health


Lupus: When the Body Attacks Itself

Lupus occurs when the body's immune system attacks the body itself. It can affect almost every organ in the body.
There is currently no cure for lupus, but there are effective treatments.
More women than men have lupus. Lupus is two to three times more common in African American women than in Caucasian women. It is also more common in women of Hispanic, Asian, and Native American descent.
Lupus can run in families, but the risk that a child or a brother or sister of a patient will also have lupus is still quite low.
It is difficult to estimate how many people in the United States have the disease, because its symptoms vary widely and its onset is often hard to pinpoint.

Lupus is one of many disorders of the immune system known as autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system turns against parts of the body it is designed to protect. This leads to inflammation and damage to various body tissues. Lupus can affect many parts of the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain. Although people with the disease may have many different symptoms, some of the most common ones include extreme fatigue, painful or swollen joints (arthritis), unexplained fever, skin rashes, and kidney problems.

At present, there is no cure for lupus. However, lupus can be effectively treated, and most people with the disease can lead active, healthy lives. Typically, people with lupus have periods of illness, called flares, and periods of wellness, or remission. Scientists funded by the NIH are continuing to make great strides in understanding the disease, which may ultimately lead to a cure.

Butterfly Rash

A woman with a characteristic lupus skin rash — the so-called butterfly rash — across her nose and cheeks.
Photo Courtesy of BSIP/Science Source


The most common symptoms of lupus include the following:

  • Painful or swollen joints and muscle pain
  • Unexplained fever
  • Red rashes, most commonly on the face
  • Chest pain upon deep breathing
  • Unusual loss of hair
  • Pale or purple fingers or toes from cold or stress (Raynaud's phenomenon)
  • Sensitivity to the sun
  • Swelling (edema) in legs or around eyes
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Swollen glands
  • Extreme fatigue

Spring 2014 Issue: Volume 9 Number 1 Page 8