Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), often called lupus, is a chronic (long-term) autoimmune disease causing widespread inflammation and a range of symptoms.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2023

What is lupus?

Lupus is a complex condition where your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue (an autoimmune disease) causing inflammation. The most common symptoms are joint pain, skin rashes and tiredness. Lupus can also cause many other symptoms affecting your:

  • Brain and nervous system
  • Heart and blood vessels
  • Digestive system
  • Kidneys
  • Lungs
  • Other organs and tissues, including the pancreas, liver or spleen

Lupus symptoms can come and go, with periods where it’s much worse called flare-ups. It can be difficult to live with, affecting your daily life. Severe lupus can damage the organs and tissues that are affected.

It’s six times more common in women than in men. It’s also more common in people of African, Caribbean, Asian or Chinese origin. Lupus typically develops between the ages of 20 and 49 and rarely affects children.

Although there’s no cure for lupus, symptoms can usually be managed through various medications, especially if started early on in the disease.

How to tell if you have lupus

Symptoms of lupus can range from mild to severe. They vary from person to person, although the most common symptoms are:

  • Joint pain and swelling – most commonly affecting fingers, hands, wrists and knees
  • Fatigue – due to anaemia
  • Skin rashes – many people develop a butterfly-shaped rash across their cheeks and nose

Other common symptoms include:

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

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Diagnosis and tests for lupus

Many lupus symptoms are non-specific, meaning they’re also associated with other diseases. This can make it difficult to make a quick diagnosis of lupus.

After discussing your medical history and symptoms, your doctor will usually refer you for a blood test to look for particular proteins associated with lupus.

If they suspect organs such as your heart or kidneys are affected, they may refer you for an X-ray or other scans.

Causes of lupus

Lupus is when your immune system attacks healthy cells throughout your body. The exact reason why this happens is unknown.

It isn’t contagious but it may be triggered by:

  • Viral infection
  • Certain medicines
  • Sunlight

It can also run in families, suggesting a genetic link.

Common treatments for lupus

There’s no cure, but medications often help relieve symptoms, especially if started in the early stages of the disease. Medications often prescribed include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen – to help ease inflammation and soreness in your joints
  • Steroid creams and tablets – for skin rashes and long-term complications such as kidney inflammation or severe blood problems
  • Antimalarials – to reduce joint inflammation and rashes, and can also help with fatigue and other complex symptoms
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – often used in arthritis, these can help control an overactive immune system and prevent kidney problems

If you have severe lupus, your doctor may prescribe rituximab or belimumab. These are newer medicines which reduce the activity of the immune system.

You can also help control lupus by:

  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Staying active during flare-ups
  • Getting enough rest and reducing stress, which can make symptoms worse
  • Using factory 50+ sunscreen and wearing a hat in the sun

You’ll need careful monitoring by your doctor to quickly recognise and treat potentially serious complications. Your medication may be changed from time to time as symptoms come and go.