What is Lupus?

Lupus is a disease of the immune system (your body’s natural defense against infections, such as bacteria and viruses). It attacks the body’s tissues, affecting joints, skin, kidneys and other parts of the body.

The most common form of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE. “Systemic” means several different body systems may be affected, such as the skin, joints, kidneys, nervous system, lungs, heart and/or blood-forming organs.

Another form of lupus may affect only the skin without affecting other organs.

Lupus is usually a long-term or chronic disease, affecting you for life. However, symptoms of lupus may come and go in “flares” of activity and remission. You may have several symptoms or just a few. Every patient is different.

If you have four or more of the following 11 symptoms, you might have lupus or a similar condition:

  • A rash across the cheeks and the bridge of the nose (called a “butterfly rash”)
  • Scaly, disk-shaped rash on the face, neck, ears, scalp and/or chest
  • Sensitivity to sunlight, such as severe rashes or fever from minimal sun exposure
  • Painless sores on the tongue, inside the mouth and/or in the nose
  • Arthritis (pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints)
  • Pain in your chest and side when you breathe, indicating inflammation of the lining of the heart (pericarditis) or lungs (pleurisy)
  • Kidney problems
  • Neurologic (brain) problems, including seizures and mental problems
  • Low white or red blood cell count
  • Presence of specific autoantibodies measured in the blood
  • The presence of antinuclear antibodies, the most commonly seen autoantibody in SLE

Our rheumatologists can help determine whether you have lupus or one of many other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.

Other symptoms and signs of lupus include:

  • Muscle aches
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Loss of appetite
  • Hair loss
  • Depression or difficulty concentrating

Lupus patients may also have or develop:

  • Raynaud’s phenomenon – a condition in which the fingers, toes, nose and/or ears, may become unusually sensitive to cold and may turn white or blue when exposed to the cold.
  • Sjogren’s syndrome – a chronic condition that causes dryness of the eyes and mouth and vaginal dryness in women.

People with lupus can develop other symptoms and health problems, some serious, so if you suspect you have lupus, call your doctor as soon as possible.

Lupus can be hard to diagnose, so it is important to see a rheumatologist specializing in arthritis and related inflammatory diseases like lupus.

The doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and symptoms, and will do a physical exam. The doctor will also order laboratory tests, including:

  • Blood tests – to check your red and white blood cells, antibodies, autoantibodies and more.
  • Urine studies – to help determine whether your organs, such as kidneys and liver, are functioning normally.

Your doctor may also request a chest X-ray or heart studies such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) or an echocardiogram to see if the disease is affecting your lungs or heart.

With lupus, signs of the disease can appear and disappear, sometimes for no apparent reason. Finding the right treatment for you may take time. Your treatment will depend on your symptoms and any organs that are affected. Once an effective treatment program has been started, keep following it. If your symptoms change, let your doctor know so that you can work together to adjust your program.