Key Points about Lupus (SLE)

  • Lupus occurs more often in African Americans, Hispanics or Asian-Americans, than in other ethnic groups.
  • Certain environmental factors can trigger lupus.
  • Lab and imaging tests are used to diagnose Lupus.
  • Treatment for lupus usually involves a combination of medicines and lifestyle changes and focuses on reducing flare-ups and symptoms.

Overview

Lupus – or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) – is an autoimmune disease that causes your body’s immune system to mistakenly attack your organs and tissues. Lupus can affect nearly any system of your body, including the joints, kidneys, skin, brain, heart, blood cells or lungs. The disease is characterized by periodic flare-ups during which most symptoms and signs occur.

Lupus causes 

Lupus occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue in the body. Some people appear to be predisposed to developing lupus, and then certain environmental factors can triggers its onset. Certain situations that can trigger lupus include:

  • Exposure to sunlight
  • Having an infection
  • Taking certain blood pressure medications, anti-seizure medications or antibiotics

Lupus risk factors

Factors that increase the risk for developing lupus include:

  • Being African American, Hispanic or Asian-American
  • Being between the age of 15 and 45
  • Being female

Lupus symptoms

Lupus affects people differently. Signs and symptoms of lupus may come on suddenly in some people, and gradually over time in others. Signs and symptoms of lupus can include:

  • Butterfly-shaped rash that covers the cheeks and bridge of the nose
  • Chest pain
  • Confusion
  • Dry eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Fingers or toes that turn blue or white after exposure to the cold or during periods of stress (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain, swelling and stiffness
  • Memory loss
  • Rashes on other areas of the body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Skin lesions that appear or get worse after sun exposure (photosensitivity)

Lupus diagnosis

There is currently no single test to diagnose lupus. A specialist will rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms and use a variety of tests to diagnose lupus. Patients typically undergo a combination diagnostic tests, including:

  • Lab tests. Your specialist may order various lab tests – such as a complete blood count (CBC), erythrocyte sedimentation rate, kidney and liver assessment, urinalysis or antinuclear antibody (ANA) test – to diagnose lupus.
  • Imaging tests. Your specialist may order imaging tests – such as chest X-ray or echocardiogram – to check for inflammation and rule out other conditions that cause similar symptoms.
  • Biopsy. Your specialist may remove a small tissue sample (biopsy) from your kidney or skin to determine which areas of your body that lupus has affected.

Lupus treatment

A specialist may recommend one or more of the following treatment options for lupus:

  • Medications. Your specialist may prescribe a combination of medicines to help control lupus flare-ups and related symptoms. These medications may include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), antimalarial drugs, corticosteroids, immunosuppressants or biologics.
  • Close monitoring. You will likely need to see your specialist for regular check-ups, even when you don’t have flare-ups. 
  • Lifestyle modifications. Your specialist may recommend lifestyle modifications – such as avoiding sun exposure, exercising regularly, not smoking, eating a healthy diet and taking vitamin D and calcium supplements – to help control your lupus.

When should I seek care?

If you experience any of these symptoms, start by voicing your concerns and symptoms to your primary care provider. From there, your doctor may suggest seeing a rheumatologist for more specialized treatment.