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Lupus (Systemic Lupus Erythematosus)


Topic Overview

What is systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease. This means that the body's natural defense system (immune system) attacks healthy tissues instead of attacking only bad things like bacteria and viruses. This causes inflammation.

Although some people with lupus have only mild symptoms, the disease is lifelong and can become severe. But most people can control their symptoms and prevent severe damage to their organs. They do this by seeing their doctors often for checkups, getting enough rest and exercise, and taking medicines.

This topic focuses on systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common and most serious type of lupus. But there are other types of lupus, such as discoid or cutaneous lupus, drug-induced systemic lupus, and neonatal lupus.

What causes lupus?

The exact cause of lupus is not known. Experts believe that some people are born with certain genes that affect how the immune system works. These people are more likely to get lupus. Then a number of other factors can trigger lupus attacks. These include viral infections, including the virus that causes mononucleosis, and sunlight.

Although these things can trigger lupus, they may affect one person but not another person.

What are the symptoms?

Lupus symptoms vary widely, and they come and go. The times when symptoms get worse are called relapses, or flares. The times when symptoms are under control are called remissions.

Common symptoms include feeling very tired and having joint pain or swelling (arthritis), a fever, and a skin rashClick here to see an illustration.. The rash often happens after you have been in the sun. You may have mouth sores and hair loss. Over time, some people with lupus have problems with the heart, lungs, kidneys, blood cells, or nervous system.

How is lupus diagnosed?

There is no single test for lupus. Because lupus affects different people in different ways, it can be hard to diagnose.

Your doctor will check for lupus by examining you, asking you questions about your symptoms and past health, and doing some urine and blood tests.

How is it treated?

Treatment for lupus may include:

  • Corticosteroid cream for rashes.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for mild joint or muscle pain and fever.
  • Antimalarial medicines to treat fatigue, joint pain, and skin rashes.
  • Corticosteroid pills if other medicines aren't controlling your symptoms.

The doctor may also recommend other medicines that slow down the immune system.

How can you manage lupus?

One of the goals of controlling mild to moderate lupus symptoms is to prevent flares. You can:

  • Rest to reduce stress.
  • Avoid the sun. Wear sunscreen and protective clothing when you are outside.
  • Exercise regularly to prevent fatigue and joint stiffness.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Watch your symptoms. If they seem to be getting worse, take steps to control them. For example, if your fatigue, pain, or rash gets worse, it may be a sign of a flare.

With good self-care, most people with lupus can keep doing their regular daily activities.

It is important to learn about lupus so that you can understand how it might affect your life and how you can best cope with it. Also, help your family and friends understand your limitations and needs when your symptoms flare. Build a support system of family, friends, and health professionals.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about lupus:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Living with lupus:

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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