Lupus is a complex and poorly understood condition that affects many parts of the body. The symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening.

The term "lupus" is most often used to describe a more severe form of the condition called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). These pages focus on SLE.

However, there are several other types of lupus that just affect the skin, including:

  • discoid lupus erythematosus
  • subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus

Some medications can also cause lupus-like side effects, known as drug-induced lupus.

Symptoms of lupus

SLE can cause a wide range of symptoms, depending on the areas of the body affected. The most common symptoms are:

  • rashes  particularly on the face, wrists and hands
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • joint pain and swelling

Many people have long periods with few or no symptoms before experiencing a sudden flare-up, where their symptoms are particularly severe.

Even mild cases can be distressing and have a considerable impact on a person's quality of life.

Read more about the symptoms of lupus.

When to see your GP

See your GP if you have persistent or troublesome symptoms that could be caused by SLE.

Your GP will aim to determine the cause by asking about your symptoms and carrying out a number of blood tests.

Read more about diagnosing lupus

Causes of lupus

SLE is an autoimmune condition, which means it's caused by problems with the immune system. For reasons not yet understood, the immune system in people with SLE starts to attack and inflame healthy cells, tissue and organs.

As with other more common autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, it's thought a combination of genetic and environmental factors may be responsible for triggering SLE in certain people.

Most cases of SLE occur in women of childbearing age. The condition tends to be less common in white people of European origin and more common in those of African, Caribbean or Asian origin.

Read about the causes of lupus.

Treating lupus

There's currently no cure for SLE, but there are different medications that can help relieve many of the symptoms and reduce the chances of organ damage.

These medications include:

  • hydroxychloroquine  a medicine that has historically been used to treat malaria, but can also help treat some symptoms of SLE
  • corticosteroids  anti-inflammatory medications
  • immunosuppressants  a group of medicines that suppress your immune system

With good levels of support from friends, family and healthcare professionals, many people with SLE are able to manage their condition effectively.

Read about treating lupus.

Information about you

If you have SLE, your clinical team will pass information about you on to the National Congenital Anomaly and Rare Diseases Registration Service (NCARDRS).

This helps scientists look for better ways to prevent and treat this condition. You can opt out of the register at any time.

Find out more about the register.

Complications of lupus

The vast majority of people diagnosed with SLE will have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.

However, some people with SLE are at risk of life-threatening complications such as a heart attack or stroke as a result of damage to internal organs and tissues.

SLE, and some of the treatments for it, can also increase your risk of developing potentially serious infections.

Read about the complications of lupus.

Page last reviewed: 26/09/2016

Next review due: 26/09/2019