Lupus overview

Last updated Feb. 9, 2023, by Marisa Wexler, MS

✅ Fact-checked by Patricia Silva, PhD

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic disorder wherein the immune system attacks the body’s own healthy tissue. Lupus can affect virtually every part of the body, including the skin, kidneys, joints, brain, heart, and lungs, resulting in a range of symptoms.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — often referred to simply as lupus — is the most common and serious form of the disease.

The word “lupus” comes from the Latin word for “wolf.” As a disease entity, the term is attributed to the 13th century physician Rogerius, who described certain types of rash on the face, which are common in lupus, as appearing similar to a wolf’s bite. The term “erythematosus” means red (Greek word erythros), referring to the skin discoloration in these rashes.

What are the causes of lupus?

An autoimmune disorder, lupus is caused by the immune system attacking healthy cells as if they are an infectious threat. The symptoms that develop are largely dependent on which body part(s) are most affected.

As a characteristic part of the autoimmune attack in lupus, immune cells make proteins called antinuclear autoantibodies (ANAs), which play a key role in driving the attack.

It’s not known what prompts the attack that causes lupus to begin, though several risk factors have been identified. For example:
  • multiple genetic mutations have been linked to lupus and the risk is increased in those with a family history of the disease.
  • lupus is more common in certain racial and ethnic groups, particularly in Black populations.
  • women are much more likely than men to develop lupus, which is thought to be due to differences in sex hormones like estrogen.
  • smoking cigarettes and exposure to air pollution may increase lupus risk.
  • exposure to ultraviolet light (high-energy light in sunlight) may increase lupus risk.
  • certain infections, particularly with the Epstein-Barr virus that causes infectious mononucleosis, have been linked with heightened lupus risk.

Certain medications can cause lupus-like disease as a rare side effect, a condition referred to as drug-induced lupus. This form of lupus usually goes away once the culprit medication is stopped.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Lupus can cause a wide range of symptoms depending on which organ(s) and bodily systems are affected. Symptoms can vary substantially from one person to another.

Symptoms also vary over time — lupus is usually marked by flares, when symptoms suddenly appear or get worse, followed by periods of remission where symptoms ease or disappear. Flares may be triggered by increased inflammation, such as what occurs in response to an infection or injury, or when a person is very stressed.

Some of the most common symptoms and manifestations of lupus include:

  • fatigue and fever
  • skin problems (cutaneous lupus), such as rash, hair loss, and ulcers
  • kidney problems, often manifesting with frequent urination, foamy urine, and swelling; kidney inflammation (lupus nephritis)
  • joint and muscle problems, including pain and swelling
  • issues in the brain and other parts of the nervous system (neuropsychiatric lupus), which can cause confusion, memory problems and, in severe cases, psychosis and delirium
  • blood-related problems like high blood pressure and low counts of blood cells
  • heart and lung inflammation, which can cause symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath.

How is lupus diagnosed?

There is no single test used to diagnose lupus. According to the most recent criteria, a person can only be diagnosed with the disease if they’ve tested positive at least once for ANAs that characteristically drive the lupus autoimmune attack. However, many people positive for ANAs don’t have lupus.

Diagnosing lupus in someone positive for ANAs involves a comprehensive assessment of the person’s symptoms, as well as lab tests to look for other signs of abnormal immune activity that are common in lupus. A diagnosis is confirmed if the patient has substantial signs and symptoms indicative of lupus without other health conditions that might better explain the clinical picture.

How is lupus treated?

There is no cure for lupus; however, there are treatments that may be used to help manage the disease. Specific regimens are tailored to the individual patient based on their needs and symptoms.

Classes of approved lupus treatments include:

  • monoclonal antibodies
  • immunosuppressants
  • antimalarial medicines
  • nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • corticosteroids
  • adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)-based therapies.

While the specific mechanism of action varies from medicine to medicine, all the approved treatments for lupus broadly work by reducing immune system activity, thereby diminishing the intensity of the autoimmune attack that drives the disease symptoms.

What is the prognosis for people with lupus?

Severe lupus flares can be life-threatening and complications from lupus such as reduced kidney function can be deadly if they aren’t managed appropriately. However, with modern care and treatment, the vast majority — estimated at 80% to 90% — of people with lupus have a life expectancy comparable to the general population.

The most common cause of death among lupus patients is heart/cardiovascular disease.

Beyond life expectancy, other aspects of the prognosis for someone with lupus will vary substantially from person to person, depending on the severity of the disease and which part(s) of the body are most affected. Some people may have mild disease that rarely causes complications, whereas others may have more severe disease that causes substantial difficulty in daily life.

Patients are advised to work with their healthcare team to develop a treatment and management plan that’s suitable for their unique situation.

Lupus News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.