Lupus: Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis & Treatment

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease affecting various body parts, including the skin, joints, and internal organs. The condition happens when the immune system identifies healthy tissues and cells as harmful and is attacked, which results in inflammation and damage.

Lupus symptoms can significantly differ among individuals, making its diagnosis quite challenging.  Some common symptoms include fatigue, fever, hair loss, sensitivity to sunlight, mouth ulcers, joint pain, and chest pain while taking a deep breath.

Genetic factors, hormonal imbalances, and environmental factors like infections and certain medications can trigger lupus. Accurate diagnosis involves a combination of blood tests, imaging studies, and clinical symptom assessment.

Important Lupus Information

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its tissues, causing inflammation and damage. It can affect various body parts, including skin, joints, and organs

The disease is unpredictable and can vary in severity from mild to life-threatening. While there’s no cure for lupus, treatments can help control symptoms and prevent flares, allowing patients to lead full and active lives.

Identifying lupus symptoms can be challenging, as they often mimic other illnesses. These can include fatigue, painful or swollen joints, fever, skin rashes, or kidney problems.

Many people with lupus experience a noticeable worsening of symptoms, called flares, followed by periods with milder symptoms. 

Various factors can trigger lupus, including sunlight, infections, and certain medications. These triggers can stimulate an overactive immune response, leading to lupus flares.

Diagnosing lupus can be complex due to its varying symptoms and resemblance to other illnesses. It typically involves a detailed medical history, physical examination, lab tests, and sometimes specific organ function tests. Timely diagnosis is vital for effective treatment and management of the condition.

Symptoms of Lupus

Lupus is an autoimmune disease affecting various body parts. It leads to a number of problematic symptoms. Some of the most common symptoms include:

Butterfly-shaped Rashes

Patients may develop rashes on sun-exposed parts of the body, such as the face, arms, and hands. 

A distinctive symptom of lupus is a red, butterfly-shaped rash spreading across the nose and cheeks.

Joint Pain and Swelling 

Lupus can cause pain or swelling in the joints, which can sometimes be severe, causing discomfort and sometimes impacting mobility.

It’s worth noting that lupus-related joint pain differs from rheumatoid arthritis, as it usually doesn’t cause permanent joint damage.


Many people with lupus experience extreme fatigue that may interfere with daily activities.

It can be overwhelming and can significantly impact the quality of life, often exacerbating other symptoms.

In addition to the typical symptoms mentioned above, lupus may also present with less frequent symptoms:

Chest Pain 

Lupus can cause inflammation in the lining of the lungs, leading to pain in the chest when taking deep breaths.

Any persistent chest pain requires immediate medical attention. This is especially important if it’s accompanied by difficulty breathing or if it coincides with other lupus symptoms.

Heart Problems 

In some cases, lupus may affect the heart, causing complications such as pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.

Lupus-related heart issues can often be managed effectively with proper treatment.

Be aware that lupus symptoms can vary significantly between individuals. Regular checkups with healthcare providers and ongoing communication about presenting symptoms are essential to manage the disease effectively.

Causes of Lupus

Lupus is a complex autoimmune disease that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks its tissues and organs, causing inflammation and various symptoms. 

The exact cause of lupus is not entirely understood, but it is known to involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors.


Genetic predisposition plays a significant role in the development of lupus. Researchers have identified more than 50 genetic variants associated with the disease.

These genes are more commonly seen in people with lupus than those without it. Although there is no direct link between most of these genes and lupus, they’re believed to play a role in its formation, particularly when paired with environmental factors.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can trigger the onset of lupus or cause flare-ups in people who already have the disease. Some common environmental factors that have been linked to lupus include:

UV Light Exposure

Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure can cause skin rashes and increase inflammation.

While it’s vital to get some sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis, individuals with lupus should take precautions, such as wearing sunscreen and protective clothing and avoiding peak solar hours to minimize potential adverse effects.


Infections can potentially precipitate lupus or cause a flare in those diagnosed with the disease.

They can stress the immune system, prompting it to respond aggressively, sometimes leading to accidental damage to healthy tissues.


Physical or emotional stress can exacerbate inflammation and trigger lupus flares.

This may also negatively affect how the immune system functions, leading to heightened symptoms in those with lupus.

Chemicals and Medication

Exposure to certain chemicals or medications, such as antibiotics, blood pressure, and anti-seizure medication, has been associated with triggering lupus or causing flares in susceptible individuals. These substances might stimulate an abnormal immune response, leading to lupus symptoms.

The likelihood of these substances causing lupus varies from person to person, and not everyone exposed to them will develop lupus. 


Hormonal factors also play a role in the development of lupus. The disease is more prevalent in women than men, and research suggests that female hormones, such as estrogen, may increase the risk of developing lupus or worsen its symptoms. Additionally, some studies have shown that hormonal changes during pregnancy, menstruation, or menopause can cause flare-ups in women with lupus.

It is essential to understand that lupus is a multifactorial disease, and its onset and progression depend on a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and hormonal factors. 

Recognizing and managing these factors can help individuals with lupus reduce the severity of their symptoms and improve their overall quality of life.


The diagnosis of lupus involves various tests due to the vast array of possible symptoms. 

Diagnostic Tests

Blood tests can determine inflammation levels and detect autoantibodies, a hallmark of autoimmune diseases.

Other diagnostic methods may include urinalysis to check for kidney involvement, imaging tests to see any internal organ damage, and sometimes a skin or kidney biopsy. These tests, along with a detailed symptom and medical history, contribute to a conclusive lupus diagnosis.

Antinuclear Antibody (ANA) Test

One of the critical blood tests is the antinuclear antibody (ANA) test, which detects if your immune system is producing antibodies to your own cells. A positive ANA test result typically occurs in most individuals with lupus.

However, a positive result alone is insufficient for a lupus diagnosis, as other autoimmune diseases may also cause positive ANA results.

CBC Test

Another test used in conjunction with other tests to diagnose lupus is the Complete Blood Count (CBC) test, which measures the number of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, as well as the amount of hemoglobin (a protein in red blood cells).

Results may indicate anemia, a common occurrence in lupus patients. While anemia alone cannot confirm a lupus diagnosis, it can be an indicative symptom with other clinical findings. 

Medical Examination

A detailed medical history and physical examination are crucial in diagnosing lupus. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, any history of infections or other diseases, and whether there is a family history of lupus or other autoimmune diseases.

They will also examine your skin, joints, and other body systems for signs of inflammation.

Additional Testing

In some cases, additional testing may be required, particularly if certain organs are believed to be affected. 


A small sample of tissue, usually from the kidney or skin, may be taken to check for signs of autoantibody deposits or inflammation.

This invasive test can confirm organ involvement and determine disease severity.

Imaging Tests

Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may recommend imaging tests, such as X-rays, echocardiograms, or MRIs, to evaluate the condition of your heart, lungs, or other body systems. These tests are generally safe, non-invasive, and can provide substantial information about the extent of disease involvement, guiding the treatment approach. 

It is important to remember that diagnosing lupus can be challenging, as its symptoms often mimic those of other illnesses. Your healthcare provider will carefully consider all available information before confirming a diagnosis.

Types of Lupus

There are several types of lupus, each with its unique characteristics and symptoms. In this section, we will discuss four major types of lupus: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus, Drug-Induced Lupus, and Neonatal Lupus.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus is the most prevalent type of lupus. It is an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues and organs.

SLE can affect various body systems, which may include one or multiple organs, including the joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs. Symptoms of SLE can be mild or severe and may include joint pain, skin rashes, fatigue, and fever.

This form of lupus is characterized by periods of flare-ups and remission, meaning the symptoms can come and go. Treatment for SLE often includes medications to control inflammation, such as corticosteroid injections or tablets, and medications to suppress the immune system.

Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (CLE)

Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus is a form of lupus that is specifically characterized by inflammatory skin conditions, causing rashes and lesions, primarily in areas exposed to the sun.

This kind of lupus is a skin ailment that can impact individuals with or without SLE.

Drug-Induced Lupus

Drug-induced Lupus is a rare type of lupus resulting from specific medications. Symptoms are similar to those of SLE, and the condition usually resolves once the triggering medication is discontinued.

Some medications that have been associated with Drug-Induced Lupus include hydralazine, procainamide, and certain anti-seizure medications.

It’s crucial to note that not all individuals taking these medications will develop Drug-Induced Lupus. If you are concerned about your risk of developing this condition, speak with your healthcare provider.

Neonatal Lupus

Neonatal Lupus is an uncommon condition that impacts newborns of mothers who have lupus.

It is not a true form of lupus but rather a combination of symptoms in the newborn caused by the presence of lupus-related autoantibodies from the mother. 

Symptoms of Neonatal Lupus include skin rashes, liver problems, and low blood cell counts. In some cases, the infant may have heart defects. While most infants with Neonatal Lupus recover fully, it is important for mothers with lupus to work closely with their healthcare providers during pregnancy to ensure their baby’s health.

Risk Factors and Demographics

Further research is needed to understand the underlying factors leading to the differences in disease prevalence and severity across various age, gender, and ethnic groups.


Lupus is a disease that can affect individuals of all ages, but it is most commonly diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 45. It’s important to note that symptoms and severity may vary across different age groups.

Children and older adults can also be affected by lupus, but the incidence in these age groups is lower.


Lupus predominantly affects women, with a significantly higher prevalence in females than males. In fact, approximately 90% of those diagnosed with lupus are women.

The reasons for this gender disparity remain unclear, but it is believed that hormonal factors might play a role in the development of the disease.


Lupus affects people of all ethnicities, but the prevalence and severity vary across different ethnic groups. Studies have shown that lupus is more common and often more severe in people of non-European descent.

Individuals of African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American origin are at a higher risk of developing lupus and experiencing severe symptoms compared to their Caucasian counterparts. 


Lupus can result in serious complications if not properly managed. It’s crucial to manage lupus under the close care of a healthcare provider to prevent the following complications.

Kidney Problems

Lupus can affect the kidneys, leading to a condition called lupus nephritis. This can cause inflammation in the kidneys, affecting their ability to filter blood efficiently.

Symptoms of lupus nephritis may include fluid retention, swelling in the legs, and high blood pressure. In severe cases, kidney failure may occur, requiring dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Heart Disease & Stroke

People with lupus have an increased risk of developing heart disease and stroke due to inflammation and other factors affecting the cardiovascular system. Lupus can contribute to the development of atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries, which can lead to heart problems.

Symptoms of heart disease may include chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Strokes can also occur due to clots or narrowed blood vessels in the brain.

Blood Disorders

Lupus can cause various blood disorders, including anemia, leukopenia, and thrombocytopenia. 

Anemia occurs when the body does not produce enough red blood cells, whereas leukopenia refers to a decrease in white blood cells, which can make it harder for the body to fight infections.

Thrombocytopenia is a condition where there are low levels of platelets in the blood, increasing the risk of bruising and bleeding. 

Blood clots can also develop in people with lupus, increasing the risk of stroke and other complications.

Cognitive Complications

Lupus can sometimes cause cognitive complications, affecting the brain and leading to issues such as confusion, memory loss, and difficulty concentrating. In some cases, lupus can also cause seizures, headaches, and mood changes.


The treatment plan includes medication and lifestyle changes, which can help individuals with lupus experience a higher quality of life and better symptom management.

Medication Management

A variety of medications are available to help manage lupus symptoms and promote remission.

These include corticosteroids reduce inflammation, anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen for milder symptoms, and immunosuppressants to prevent the immune system from attacking healthy tissue.

Lifestyle Changes

Making certain adjustments to one’s lifestyle may also help manage lupus symptoms and prevent complications. Some key lifestyle changes include:

Managing Stress and Depression

Managing stress and addressing depression can both trigger lupus flare-ups. High-stress levels can worsen disease activity, while depression can affect the overall quality of life and adherence to treatment.

Effective stress management can lower the risk of lupus flares while treating depression aids in improving overall well-being and adherence to treatment. Support from loved ones and patient groups can also be beneficial.

Sunlight and UV Protection

Protection from sunlight and ultraviolet (UV) radiation is crucial in lupus management since UV exposure can trigger lupus flares.

Implementing precautions such as wearing sunscreen, donning protective clothing, and avoiding sun exposure during peak-intensity hours can reduce the risk.

Diet and Exercise

It is advised to maintain a balanced diet and regular exercise regimen to support overall health.

A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats can help enhance overall health, while exercising can improve energy and emotional state and reduce inflammation.

Alternative Therapies

In addition to medication and lifestyle alterations, some people with lupus may benefit from alternative therapies to manage stress and alleviate symptoms. 


Acupuncture has shown promise in helping reduce pain and inflammation in some patients. It involves inserting thin needles into specific body points to alleviate pain and lessen inflammation.

While some people with lupus report improvement with acupuncture, its effectiveness varies among individuals. 

While alternative treatments can supplement traditional medical care, it is essential to consult with healthcare professionals before incorporating them into a treatment plan.


It is important to maintain a healthy lifestyle and follow the doctor’s recommendations to manage and prevent lupus flares effectively.

Pay close attention to factors that may trigger flares, such as stress, infections, and overexertion. Some strategies to help manage flares include:

Avoiding Sun Exposure

As people with lupus are often sensitive to the sun, it’s crucial to protect your skin from direct sunlight.

Wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, and cover your skin with clothing or wide-brimmed hats when outdoors.

Managing Stress 

Engage in stress-reducing activities, such as meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises, to help keep your stress levels in check.

It’s advisable also to consider seeking professional mental health support if needed.

Regular Exercise 

Staying active can improve overall health and reduce the risk of lupus flares. Choose low-impact exercises such as swimming, walking, or yoga to avoid putting too much strain on your joints.

However, the type and extent of exercises should be individualized, considering the person’s overall health and lupus condition.

Getting Enough Rest 

Make sure you get adequate sleep and rest, especially during a flare-up.

Fatigue is a common lupus symptom, and giving your body the necessary time to recover is essential for managing the condition.

Reducing Risk Factors

In addition to managing flares, you can take measures to reduce the risk factors associated with lupus. These include:

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

Obesity can exacerbate lupus symptoms and increase the risk of complications. Aim for a healthy weight through a balanced diet and regular exercise.

It’s crucial to seek advice from a healthcare provider or dietitian before initiating any weight loss regimen to ensure it’s safe and effective, given everyone’s unique health circumstances.

Avoid Smoking 

Smoking can worsen lupus symptoms, especially cardiovascular complications. If you smoke, seek help to quit and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.

Support for quitting smoking can include nicotine replacement therapy, medication, counseling, and behavior strategies. 

Medication Management

Some medications can cause drug-induced lupus or worsen existing symptoms.

Discuss your medications with your doctor and ensure you’re taking them as prescribed to minimize potential risks.

By incorporating these preventive measures, along with working closely with your healthcare team, you can better manage your lupus symptoms and reduce the frequency of flare-ups.


When dealing with lupus, it’s essential to work with healthcare professionals who specialize in the various aspects of the disease.

Two key specialists for lupus patients include rheumatologists and nephrologists.


Rheumatologists are medical professionals specializing in diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases such as lupus, which primarily affects the joints and soft tissues. They play a crucial role in managing symptoms, monitoring disease progression, and developing treatment plans.

A rheumatologist’s expertise is invaluable in the early stages of the disease when the symptoms may be vague and nonspecific. They are trained to recognize the subtle signs of lupus and will order the appropriate diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis.

These specialists work closely with their patients to devise a tailored treatment plan that minimizes symptoms and prolongs periods of remission.

They may recommend medications such as anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, or immunosuppressive agents to help control lupus symptoms.


Nephrologists are specialists in kidney care and play a vital role in treating lupus patients experiencing kidney issues.

Lupus nephritis, a common complication of lupus, occurs when the disease affects the kidneys, leading to inflammation and potentially causing long-term damage.

In cases where lupus nephritis is suspected, a nephrologist will collaborate with the rheumatologist to perform diagnostic tests, such as kidney biopsies, to assess the severity of the damage.

They will also monitor kidney function through regular blood tests and urine analysis.

A nephrologist’s primary goal is to manage lupus nephritis and prevent further kidney damage.

Treatment options may include medications like angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs), and high blood pressure medications to maintain healthy kidney function.

Their multidisciplinary expertise helps ensure a comprehensive approach to managing the disease and its complications, ultimately improving the patient’s quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the common symptoms of lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that affects various body systems, leading to a variety of symptoms.

Common symptoms include fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, photosensitivity, and mouth sores. Lupus symptoms can differ among individuals and may come and go over time.

How is lupus diagnosed?

Diagnosing lupus can pose a challenge since its symptoms often resemble other health conditions. Doctors typically use a combination of medical history, physical exams, and specific laboratory tests, such as the antinuclear antibody (ANA) test, to diagnose lupus.

While most people with lupus have a positive ANA test, it’s important to note that a positive ANA alone does not confirm lupus.

What factors can trigger lupus?

Although the exact cause of lupus is unknown, certain factors can trigger the onset of the disease.

Genetic predisposition, hormonal imbalances, and environmental factors like sun exposure, infections, and stress are believed to play roles in triggering lupus.

How can lupus be treated?

There is no cure for lupus, but its symptoms can be managed through personalized treatment plans. Treatment often involves medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), corticosteroids, and immunosuppressants to manage inflammation and control the immune system.

Managing stress, practicing a healthy lifestyle, and avoiding known triggers are also essential for people living with lupus.

Is there a way to prevent lupus?

Given that the precise cause of lupus isn’t entirely clear, there’s no guaranteed method to prevent it.

However, leading a healthy lifestyle, managing stress, and addressing potential triggers can help lower the risk of developing lupus or minimize its impact on those already diagnosed.

What organs can lupus affect?

Lupus can affect various organs, with each individual experiencing different impacts. The organs commonly affected by lupus include joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs.

The level of severity varies, and the affected organs can change over time. Consequently, regular medical checkups and careful monitoring are crucial for people with lupus.