Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes inflammation throughout your body. An autoimmune disease is a condition in which your body’s own immune system is responsible for the inflammation and breakdown of its own cells. The inflammation seen in lupus can affect various organs and tissues in your body, including your:
This disease can be severe and potentially life-threatening. It can cause permanent organ damage. However, many people with lupus experience a mild version of it. Currently, there’s no known cure for lupus. View images of lupus symptoms and explore areas of the body it affects here.
The symptoms of lupus vary according to the parts of your body affected. Symptoms can disappear suddenly. They can be permanent or flare up occasionally. Although no two cases of lupus are the same, the most common symptoms and signs include:
- a fever
- body aches
- joint pain
- rashes, including a butterfly rash on the face
- skin lesions
- shortness of breath
- chronic dry eyes
- chest pain
- memory loss
Some of the later symptoms of lupus include kidney problems due to inflammation called nephritis. A person may experience high blood pressure, dark urine, and blood in the urine. Review the top 10 early symptoms of lupus, including rash.
While doctors don’t know exactly what causes lupus, they think it may be a combination of many underlying factors. These include:
- Environment: Doctors have identified potential triggers like smoking, stress, and exposure to toxins like silica dust as potential lupus causes.
- Genetics: Having a family history of lupus may put a person at slightly higher risk for experiencing the condition.
- Hormones: Some studies suggest that abnormal hormone levels, such as increased estrogen levels, could contribute to lupus.
- Infections: Doctors are still studying the link between infections like cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, or hepatitis C and causes of lupus.
- Medications: Long-term use of certain medications, such as hydralazine (Apresoline), procainamide (Procanbid), and quinidine, have been linked with causing a form of lupus known as drug-induced lupus erythematosus.
It’s also possible a person has experienced none of the known potential causes of lupus listed here and yet has the condition.
Examples of risk factors for lupus include:
- being a woman
- being between the ages of 15 and 44
- being a member of certain ethnic groups, such as African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, or Pacific Islander
- Having a family history of lupus
Having risk factors for lupus doesn’t mean you will get lupus, but that you are at increased risk compared to those who don’t have risk factors.
Currently, there is no cure for lupus. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of people living with lupus can live a normal life span with treatment and follow-up. However, research regularly explores promising innovations in lupus treatment. These include some animal studies that show early promise that lupus is curable.
While there is no cure for lupus at this time, you can take medications to control lupus symptoms. Examples of lupus treatment medications include:
- nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- antimalarial medications
- DHEA, a male hormone that may reduce some lupus effects, such as hair loss
- immunosuppressive drugs
A doctor will consider a person’s lupus symptoms and their severity when recommending lupus treatments. Doctors may also recommend lifestyle changes, such as avoiding excess ultraviolet sunlight exposure. Some people take supplements in addition to their medications to reduce lupus symptoms. Examples of these supplements include flax seed, fish oil, and vitamin D. Review a more comprehensive listing of lupus treatment medications.
Doctors haven’t established a definitive lupus diet. However, there are some foods that those with lupus should usually avoid, mostly due to the medications they typically take. Examples include alcohol, which interacts negatively with many NSAIDs and can cause gastrointestinal bleeding.
Avoiding foods high in salt and cholesterol not only is beneficial for a person’s health, but also helps to prevent bloating due to corticosteroid use.
Other healthy steps to reduce inflammation in the body for those with lupus include:
- fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel
- foods high in calcium, such as low-fat dairy products
- eating whole-grain carbohydrate sources
- eating a blend of colorful fruits and vegetables
However, people with lupus should avoid alfalfa. This is because the amino acid known as L-canavanine found in alfalfa sprouts and seeds may increase inflammation and lead to lupus flare-ups. Learn about more foods that are good to eat or should be avoided on a lupus diet.
Doctors don’t have a specific blood test or imaging study to use to diagnose lupus. Instead, they consider a person’s signs and symptoms and rule out other potential conditions that could be causing a person’s symptoms.
In addition to taking a detailed medical history and physical examination, doctors may perform the following tests to diagnose lupus:
- Laboratory tests: These could include a complete blood count (CBC), a test doctors use to determine the number and type of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets in the blood. Other tests a doctor may order include an erythrocyte sedimentation rate, protein levels, and anti-nuclear antibody test, which can indicate heightened immune system activity.
- Imaging tests: Chest X-rays and echocardiograms are two imaging studies that may indicate the buildup of fluid on or around the heart. Positive results may reflect lupus causes.
- Tissue biopsy: Doctors can take a biopsy or sample of cells from an area of lupus-like rash to determine if cells typical of a person with lupus are present.
A doctor may also perform a kidney biopsy to see if the kidneys appear damaged due to lupus. Lupus-related kidney damage is called lupus nephritis.
Doctors usually categorize four lupus types. These include:
- Systemic lupus erythematosus: The most common lupus type, this condition can range from mild to severe. The condition causes symptoms that may get worse over time, then improve.
- Cutaneous lupus: This type of lupus is generally limited to your skin. It may cause rashes and permanent lesions with scarring. The cutaneous form of skin lupus that causes scarring is called discoid lupus.
- DILE: Long-term use of certain prescription medications can lead to drug-induced lupus. DILE is caused by the long-term use of certain prescribed medications. It mimics the symptoms of systemic lupus, but in most cases, the condition doesn’t affect major organs.
- Neonatal lupus: This condition is extremely rare and affects infants whose mothers have lupus. Symptoms of this condition may include a skin rash, low blood cell counts, and liver problems after birth. While some babies may have heart defects, most have symptoms that will go away after several months.
Some lupus types have further divisions depending on a person’s symptoms.
Lupus isn’t a contagious condition. Although some people with a family history of the condition are more at risk for it, they don’t “catch” it from another person. Find out more about the answer to “Is lupus contagious?”
Medical innovations and improvements in diagnostic testing have meant people with lupus are living longer than ever. According to the Lupus Foundation of America, an estimated 80 to 90 percent of people diagnosed with lupus will live a normal life span. Those who have severe lupus symptoms or who experience a severe flare-up are at greater risk for complications than those with mild to moderate lupus. Review possible life-threatening complications and more about life expectancy with lupus here.
While lupus can affect a person’s health, it doesn’t have to impact their quality of life. By focusing on their medications and wellness, a person can live as healthy a life as possible. Many people have shared their lupus journeys, and a listing of the best lupus blogs is here. Sharing with others through in-person or online support groups can help. Read this article to learn how one blogger navigates living with lupus.
For most lupus types, the condition isn’t preventable. An exception is the medications known to cause drug-induced lupus. However, it’s important a person discuss the risks and benefits as not taking these medications could also result in life-threatening effects.
Additionally, a person may wish to engage in preventive measures that reduce the likelihood they will experience a lupus flare-up. These include:
- Avoiding direct sunlight: Excess sun exposure can cause a lupus-related rash. A person should always wear sunscreen when going outdoors and avoid direct sunlight when the sun’s rays are most overhead, which is usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Practicing stress management techniques. These include meditation, yoga, or massages that can help a person relieve stress whenever possible.
- Practicing infection prevention techniques. This includes frequent hand-washing and avoiding being around those with colds and other illnesses.
- Getting plenty of rest. Rest is vital to helping a person’s body heal.