July 18, 2022
5 min. read

Treating Lupus with Benlysta: Side Effects, Uses, and More


Good to Know:

  • Benlysta is the commercial name for the medication belimumab. It’s used to treat lupus.
  • The medication binds to a protein in your immune system to keep immune system cells from attacking tissues in your body.
  • Benlysta can be given as a subcutaneous (under the skin) injection, or it can be delivered intravenously (through an IV) by a healthcare provider.
  • Benlysta can cause some side effects including nausea, trouble sleeping, or infections such as colds. If your healthcare provider prescribes Benlysta, follow their instructions and let them know of any worsening symptoms.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1.5 million people in America. And due to the complex nature of the condition, finding the appropriate way to treat lupus can be a challenge for patients and healthcare providers. As an autoimmune disease, lupus can affect multiple organs and tissues of the body, with symptoms ranging from skin rashes to kidney failure.

There are different types of lupus, but the most common type is called systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE. Lupus treatment, especially treatment for SLE, will often require multiple medication and therapy options to ensure patients can manage lupus symptoms. One of those medications is Benlysta. With additional therapies, Benlysta can be an effective way to help manage lupus.


What is Benlysta?

Benlysta, or belimumab, is a breakthrough in the efforts to treat lupus. It is the first FDA-approved medication specifically designed to help treat SLE in addition to standard therapies. As of 2020, Benlysta was also approved for adult patients with SLE and active lupus nephritis, or lupus-induced kidney inflammation.

Did You Know?  Other drugs can also treat lupus, but they weren’t originally designed with that intention. Benlysta is the first medication created with the sole purpose of treating lupus since the disease’s initial discovery. 

The benefits of Benlysta: How it works and why it’s different

Your body’s immune system is always working to protect you from foreign invaders. But with an autoimmune disease such as lupus, the body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues. With lupus, the immune system causes inflammation in multiple parts of the body, leading to lupus symptoms such as joint pain, skin rash, cardiovascular or pulmonary issues, and kidney inflammation.

Quick Statistics: It’s estimated that roughly 30% of people with SLE will also develop kidney disease, also called lupus nephritis.

One important part of the immune system is B cells. These are a type of white blood cell created in the body’s bone marrow. If B cells survive long enough, they can activate into immunoglobulin-producing cells, which help the immune system react to pathogens. Since lupus is an autoimmune disease, immunoglobulin-producing cells can attack tissues in the patient’s body. That’s where Benlysta comes in.


Belimumab is a type of medication called a monoclonal antibody. It does not get rid of B cells; instead, it binds to a protein called B lymphocyte stimulator, or BLyS. This protein helps B cells survive longer and can help create autoantibodies, which attack the patient’s own tissues. 

By binding itself to BLyS, belimumab allows B cells to die out naturally, as they normally would, and helps reduce autoantibody levels. When combined with other lupus treatments, such as steroids, Benlysta can help reduce lupus symptoms and improve your quality of life.

How to take Benlysta

Currently, there are two ways to receive belimumab: as an intravenous medication through an IV infusion, or as a subcutaneous injection with a prefilled syringe and an autoinjector. Adults are approved for both intravenous IV infusions and subcutaneous injections; children can only receive an IV infusion. 

An intravenous infusion is done at your healthcare facility, and treatment usually takes about one hour. You’ll receive three doses of Benlysta at 2-week intervals, and then 1 dose of Benlysta every four weeks.

If you choose to use a prefilled syringe for subcutaneous injections, you’ll give yourself a dose of Benlysta once a week.

Side effects of Benlysta

Some of the most common side effects of Benlysta are headaches, nausea, trouble sleeping, muscle aches, and mild infections such as colds or bronchitis. The injection site may also get red, swollen, or itchy. If your side effects are concerning, ask your healthcare provider for their recommendations on how to alleviate them.

It’s less common, but serious side effects of Benlysta can also occur. If you have serious side effects, call 911 or your healthcare provider as soon as possible. Examples of serious side effects include:

  • Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a rare brain infection with symptoms that include vision loss, trouble speaking, personality changes and difficulty walking
  • Allergic reactions to belimumab, which can range from mild (skin rash or itchiness) to severe (swelling under the skin, trouble breathing, anaphylaxis)
  • Depression, including thoughts of suicide. If you or a family member has a history of depression, make sure to alert your healthcare provider; they may recommend a different treatment for you.

Before starting treatment: What you should know

Benlysta works for adult patients with active SLE, and it can be used on children as young as 5 years old. However, it’s not for everyone. There are some patients who should avoid taking Benlysta to treat lupus, and should look into different treatment options instead.

Discuss alternative care options with your healthcare provider if:

  • You are breastfeeding, pregnant, or trying to become pregnant, as there is not currently enough information to know if Benlysta is safe during pregnancy or breastfeeding.
  • You have a history of depression, as Benlysta can make depression symptoms worse. 
  • You currently or have a history of serious infections. Benlysta can increase your risk of getting infections.
  • You take additional biologics, such as Humira, or intravenous cyclophosphamide. Benlysta hasn’t been studied in combination with these other lupus medications, and it’s not recommended to mix these medications.

Quick Tip: Make sure you don’t receive any live vaccines while on Benlysta. As the name suggests, live vaccines have a live but very weak version of the virus inside them. Most vaccines aren’t live vaccines, though, and you should be safe to receive most vaccinations. If you have any doubts, ask your doctor or pharmacist. 

If you experience any of these symptoms, talk with your healthcare provider as soon as possible. 

  • Chest tightness or chest pain
  • Mood changes—anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide
  • Trouble breathing

There are still ongoing clinical trials to learn more about how Benlysta works, as well. If you’re interested in enrolling in a clinical trial and furthering research to treat SLE, you can talk with your healthcare provider or learn more here. 


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