What is lupus?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus) is a disease that causes your body’s immune system to attack its own cells and tissues. It causes periods of inflammation to various parts of the body. It can affect your joints, tendons, and skin. It can affect blood vessels. And it can affect organs such as the kidneys, heart, lungs, and brain. It can cause rashes, fatigue, pain, and fever. The heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain are the organs most affected. Severe lupus can cause harm to organs and other serious problems.

Lupus is an chronic disease. It affects each person differently. The effects of the illness range from mild to severe. Symptoms of lupus may come and go. These are sometimes known as flare-ups, periods of remission, and relapse. Lupus has no cure, but medicines can help symptoms. And you can help manage lupus by living a healthy lifestyle and working with your healthcare provider. In children, lupus often attacks the kidneys. This can lead to kidney damage and kidney failure. In some cases, lupus can be fatal.

What causes lupus?

Your body protects itself with the immune system. The immune system makes proteins called antibodies. These protect against bacteria, viruses, and cancer cells. In some people, the immune system makes antibodies that attack the body’s own cells. This leads to inflammation and tissue damage in the body.

Experts think it may be caused by a mix of genes and other factors. The other factors may include being exposed to the Epstein-Barr virus. Other factors such as sunlight, stress, or hormones may be part of the cause of lupus.

Who is at risk for lupus?

Lupus occurs most often in young women in their late teens and adult women younger than age 45. The female hormone estrogen is linked with lupus. Lupus also affects more African-Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and American Indians than whites. Lupus in children occurs most often in ages 15 and older.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Lupus symptoms can appear in many parts of the body. Symptoms can occur a bit differently in each person. They may come and go. Some of the common symptoms of lupus are:

  • Anemia
  • Butterfly-shaped rash on the nose and cheeks of the face (malar rash)
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Hair loss
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pale, blue, or red fingers triggered by cold, stress, or illness (Raynaud’s phenomenon)
  • Raised rash on the head, arms, chest, or back (discoid rash)
  • Rashes caused by sunlight
  • Sores in the mouth or nose
  • Swollen glands
  • Swollen or painful joints (arthritis)
  • Weight loss

The symptoms of lupus can look like other health problems. Make sure to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is lupus diagnosed?

Lupus is hard to diagnose. This is because it has many possible symptoms that could have other causes. And the symptoms can occur slowly over time.

To diagnose lupus, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and your symptoms. Your healthcare provider may suspect you have lupus if you have 4 or more symptoms and no specific cause. You may have tests to help confirm the diagnosis. You may have blood tests such as: 

  • Antibody blood tests. These tests are done to look for certain kinds of antibodies in your blood. The main test for lupus is the antinuclear antibodies (ANA) test. Most people with lupus will have a positive ANA test result. Other tests check for other kinds of antibodies.
  • Complete blood count (CBC). This test checks for low counts of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets.
  • Complement test. This test is done to measure the level of complement. This is a group of proteins in the blood that help destroy foreign substances. Low levels of complement in the blood are often linked with lupus.
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate). This test looks at how quickly red blood cells fall to the bottom of a test tube. When swelling and inflammation are present, the blood’s proteins clump together and become heavier than normal. They fall and settle faster at the bottom of the test tube. The faster the blood cells fall, the more severe the inflammation.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP). This is protein that is shows up when inflammation is found in the body. ESR and CRP show similar amounts of inflammation. But in some case, one will be high when the other is not. This test may be repeated to check your response to medicine.

You may also have other tests such as:

  • Urine tests. These are to look for blood or protein in the urine. This can mean your kidneys are not working normally.
  • Biopsies. A biopsy is when tiny pieces of tissue are taken from the body to be checked under a microscope. To look for signs of lupus, biopsies may be done of the skin and kidneys. The test looks for damage to these organs.
  • X-rays. This test uses a small amount of radiation to create images of organs, bones, and other tissues.