March 28, 2022
4 min. read

Lupus: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Medly

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that affects 1.5 million Americans, and at least 5 million people worldwide. While it mostly strikes women of childbearing age—in fact, 9 out of 10 lupus patients are women—men, children, and teenagers can develop lupus too. 

There’s currently no cure for lupus, and treatment requires life-long management. But together with your doctor and care team, you can develop a treatment plan that will help control your symptoms and limit the amount of the damage the disease does to your body.

What is lupus? 

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly referred to simply as lupus, is a chronic autoimmune disease that can cause pain and swelling throughout the body. Typically, the immune system works by fighting off threats to the body—infections, for example. But when you have an autoimmune disease, your body’s immune system fights itself. When your immune system goes after healthy tissue, the inflammation and pain of autoimmunity develop. 

What are the signs and symptoms of lupus? 

If you have lupus, you might experience joint pain, skin sensitivities and rashes, and issues with internal organs (brain, lungs, kidneys and heart). Many of the symptoms of lupus come and go in waves—these are known as “flare ups.” At certain times, your symptoms may be so mild you barely even notice them—and at others, so severe that they impact your daily life and activities. 

Lupus causes a wide variety of signs and symptoms. Because not everyone with lupus will have the same set of symptoms, and many of these symptoms overlap with other medical conditions, lupus can sometimes prove difficult to diagnose. 

Lupus symptoms can also be slow to develop—you may notice new symptoms over time, or the severity of your symptoms may change over the years. 

Symptoms of lupus include: 

  • Joint pain
  • Muscle pain
  • Rashes
  • Fever
  • Sensitivity to sunlight
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Dry eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Stomach pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Swollen glands
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Issues with the kidneys, heart or lungs
  • Seizures
  • Blood clots
  • Anemia
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon

How is lupus diagnosed? 

For a number of reasons, lupus can be difficult to diagnose—lupus symptoms overlap with other conditions, and can take time to develop, sometimes flaring up and sometimes going into remission. 

To diagnose lupus, your healthcare provider will likely begin by asking you about your family history and discussing your symptoms. While no one blood test can be used to diagnose lupus, your physician will typically do some lab tests, usually a combination of blood and urine tests. These tests will be used to check for things like low blood cell counts, anemia and other abnormalities. 

In particular, your provider may do an antinuclear antibody (ANA) test. An ANA test can detect the presence of certain antibodies in your blood that could be a sign that you have an autoimmune disease. Most people with lupus usually test positive for ANAs. However, testing positive for antinuclear antibodies alone does not necessarily mean you have lupus. In most cases, your provider will look for at least three other clinical features before making an official diagnosis. 

How is lupus treated? 

Treatment for lupus will vary from person to person, as it depends on your specific signs and symptoms. Together with your healthcare provider, you can develop a specific treatment plan that may consist of medications and lifestyle modifications. 

Medications 

The medications used to most commonly treat lupus include: 

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, are commonly used to treat pain, swelling and fever associated with lupus. Your doctor may prescribe you a stronger NSAID to help with your symptoms. 
  • Antimalarial drugs. While antimalarial drugs are most commonly used to treat symptoms of malaria, they can also be used to treat lupus. They work by affecting the immune system and helping to decrease the risk of lupus flares. 
  • Corticosteroids. Steroids can help counter the inflammation that occurs with lupus. 
  • Immunosuppressants. In some cases of lupus, drugs that suppress the immune system may be helpful. 
  • Biologics. Biologics like belimumab are injected intravenously, and have been shown to reduce lupus symptoms in some patients. 

Lifestyle modifications 

Simple measures to ensure that you are taking care of yourself and your body can help prevent lupus flares and, should they occur, better cope with the signs and symptoms you experience. 

  • Schedule regular visits with your healthcare provider. Even if you aren’t currently experiencing a flare-up, scheduling time to see your doctor can help you work to prevent future flares. It can also be a way to address ongoing health concerns, such as stress, diet and exercise, so that you further prevent future flares. 
  • Protect your skin from the sun. Ultraviolet light can trigger lupus flares, so it’s a good idea to wear protective clothing and to apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 55 every time you go outside. 
  • Exercise regularly. If you can, try to get some regular exercise, as it can keep your bones strong, reduce your risk of heart attack and promote general well-being.
  • Avoid smoking. Smoking can worsen the effects of lupus on your heart and blood vessels, as well as increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. 
  • Maintain a healthy diet. Eating a healthy diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains can help prevent flares. With lupus, you may also have certain dietary restrictions, so talk to your doctor about your diet. 

While there is currently no cure for lupus, treatment can focus on managing your symptoms, and preventing further damage to your body. In addition to working with your healthcare provider and finding a treatment plan for your symptoms, you may find relief through developing different coping mechanisms and constructing a supportive social network of friends and family. 

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