What Is Lupus?

Lupus is a chronic (long-lasting) disease that damages different organs, including the skin, joints, kidneys, heart, and brain. The damage happens because the germ-fighting immune system attacks the body's own cells. This is called autoimmunity.

Medicine can help with symptoms and lower the risk of flare-ups (times when symptoms get worse).

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Lupus?

Signs and symptoms of lupus (pronounced: LOOP-iss) can vary from person to person, but may include:

  • rash on the face or body
  • sensitivity to sunlight
  • extreme tiredness
  • fever
  • joint pain
  • Raynaud's syndrome (when fingers or toes temporarily feel cold, numb, tingly, or painful)
  • muscle aches
  • weight loss
  • sores in the nose, mouth, or throat
  • swollen glands
  • bald patches and hair loss
  • low red blood cell count (anemia)
  • infections
  • inflammation of the lining around the heart, belly, or lungs
  • seizures or other neurological problems
  • kidney problems

Most people with lupus are women in their late teens to forties.

What Are the Types of Lupus?

There are three kinds of lupus:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common kind of lupus. It can affect many organs in the body.
  • Cutaneous (or skin) lupus usually affects only the skin with rashes on the scalp, legs, or arms.
  • Drug-induced lupus happens as a reaction to some medicines. Symptoms usually go away when the person stops taking the medicine.

What Causes Lupus?

People can develop lupus for one or more of these reasons:

  • Some people may have a genetic tendency to get lupus.
  • It may be triggered by an infection, medicine, or extreme physical or emotional stress.
  • The female hormone estrogen may play a role, which could explain why lupus is more common in women.

How Is Lupus Diagnosed?

Doctors diagnose lupus by asking about symptoms and doing an exam. They'll also do blood tests to look for:

  • anemia and other blood problems
  • proteins such as antinuclear antibodies (ANA), which are present in many people with lupus

Diagnosing lupus can be hard because it can affect almost any organ in the body, and symptoms vary widely from patient to patient.

How Is Lupus Treated?

Treatment for lupus depends on the organs involved. There is no cure for the condition, but treatment can help control its symptoms. Often, someone with lupus has a health care team with specialists such as:

  • a rheumatologist (for problems with the joints and connective tissues)
  • a nephrologist (for kidney problems)
  • an infectious disease specialist (to help treat infections)
  • a dermatologist (for skin problems)
  • a psychologist (to help someone cope with lupus)

Medicines can help lower the risk of flare-ups and improve symptoms. Someone with lupus may take:

  • corticosteroids to control inflammation
  • immunosuppressive drugs to lower the body's immune response
  • antimalarial drugs to help treat skin rashes and joint pain
  • acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for joint and muscle pain

What Else Should I Know?

For a lot of people with lupus, taking some steps can help prevent flare-ups. Getting enough rest and not getting too busy or overly stressed can help. So can eating well and exercising regularly. Exercise also helps with tiredness and joint stiffness. Doctors recommend avoiding the sun as much as possible and wearing sunscreen and protective clothing when outside.

Looking Ahead

Lupus is a chronic disease, but treatments can help with symptoms and lower the risk of flare-ups.

To help you manage:

  • Go to all doctor visits and follow the care team's instructions.
  • Learn what symptoms mean a flare-up may be coming. Calling the doctor right away and starting medicines may stop the flare-up or make it less severe.
  • Talk to your teachers and other school staff to help them understand what you need.

Learn all you can about lupus. Your care team is a great resource. You also can find information and support online at:

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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