Lupus Erythematosus Learning Center

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Lupus Erythematosus

What is Lupus Erythematosus?

Systemic lupus erythematosus is a long-term autoimmune disease. This type of disease occurs when the body mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy tissue. According to the Lupus Foundation of America (LFA), systemic lupus erythematosus is the most common form of the disease, and is generally referred to simply as “lupus.” (LFA)

Lupus causes chronic inflammation that can affect your skin, joints, and vital organs, including your lungs, brain, and kidneys. This condition may present a wide variety of symptoms, many of which mimic other conditions, making diagnosis difficult.

People with mild forms of the disease may experience symptoms that come and go. Common symptoms include:

  • joint paint and swelling
  • a “butterfly rash” covering the nose and cheeks that gets worse in sunlight
  • sensitivity to sunlight
  • fatigue

Moderate to severe lupus may cause long-term complications, such as:

  • inflammation of the kidneys (known as lupus nephritis), which can disrupt the body’s ability to filter waste from the blood and lead to kidney failure
  • inflammation of the brain, causing memory issues, headaches, and stroke
  • increased blood pressure in the lungs
  • hardening of the arteries, which increases risk for heart attack
  • inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain, which may lead to seizures

The exact cause of lupus is unknown, and there is no definitive medical test for lupus. However, certain genetic and environmental factors are believed to trigger the disease and increase a person’s risk of developing lupus.

Lupus erythematosus is a serious condition. If you have symptoms of lupus, consult your physician.

Causes of Lupus Erythematosus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is caused by your immune system mistakenly attacking healthy tissue. In lupus, this leads to chronic inflammation.

The cause of lupus remains unknown. However, certain risk factors have been identified. According to the Mayo Clinic, diagnosis usually occurs between the age of 15 and 40. Women have a higher incidence than men. Lupus is also more common among African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. (Mayo Clinic, 2011)

Symptoms of Lupus

Symptoms of lupus vary greatly from person to person. Often, they come and go. When symptoms worsen, it is called an episode or flare-up. Some common symptoms of lupus are:

  • joint pain, stiffness, and swelling (some lupus patients develop arthritis)
  • fatigue
  • dry eyes
  • butterfly-shaped rash on the face
  • sensitivity to sunlight
  • skin lesions (tend to get worse when exposed to sunlight)
  • shortness of breath
  • fingers and toes turn white or blue when exposed to cold (or if the patient is under great stress)
  • fever
  • headaches
  • confusion or memory loss

Complications of Lupus

Lupus can attack almost every part of your body, causing a variety of complications.

  • Women with lupus are more prone to pregnancy problems. They have a higher risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia, and premature birth.
  • People with lupus are more susceptible to infections.
  • Diminished blood supply to bones can cause breaks and bone collapse. There is a particularly high risk of hip fracture.
  • Lupus can cause anemia, vasculitis (inflammation of blood vessels), bleeding, and blood clotting.
  • Pleurisy (inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity) can make breathing difficult or painful.
  • There is increased risk of heart attack and cardiovascular disease.
  • People with lupus have a higher risk of cancer.
  • Kidney failure is a leading cause of death among people with lupus.

If lupus attacks your brain, it may cause:

  • dizziness
  • headaches
  • strokes
  • seizures
  • changes in behavior
  • hallucinations

How Lupus is Diagnosed

There is no single test that can confirm lupus. Because of the wide array of symptoms, diagnosis can be difficult. Diagnosis is made based on clinical presentation, patient history, physical examination, and a variety of tests, including:

  • blood tests
  • urinalysis
  • kidney and liver function tests
  • antinuclear antibody panel
  • chest X-ray
  • echocardiogram
  • biopsy of kidney tissue

Diagnosis can be made if you have four typical signs of lupus.

Treatment Options for Lupus Erythematosus

Treatment is generally based on your individual symptoms, how often they flare up, and severity of disease. It is important to discuss both the benefits and potential side effects of treatment with your doctor. Medications used to treat lupus include:

  • over-the-counter and prescription strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—such as ibuprofen
  • corticosteroids 
  • immune suppressants
  • antimalarial medications

Complications will also require treatment.

If you have lupus, you should have regular medical exams. It is also important to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Living with Lupus Erythematosus

Lupus is a lifelong condition, but there are things you can do to improve your outlook.

  • Educate yourself about lupus. Make sure you use reputable sources. Ask your doctor for recommendations.
  • Join a support group for lupus patients. Your doctor or local hospital may be able to direct you to a group that meets in your area.
  • See your doctor regularly.
  • Keep up to date with your immunizations.
  • Keep exposure to the sun to a minimum. Wear sunglasses, sunblock, hats, and protective clothing.
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Ask your doctor if you have any special dietary restrictions.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Make sure you always get plenty of rest to help combat fatigue.
  • Don’t smoke.
Content licensed from:

Written by: Bree Normandin
Published on Jul 18, 2012
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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