Lupus is a complex and poorly understood condition that affects many parts of the body and causes symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.
Types of lupus
There are some types of lupus that just affect the skin – such as discoid lupus erythematosus and subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus. Some medications can also cause lupus-like side effects.
However, the term "lupus" is most often used to describe a more severe form of the condition called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which can affect many parts of the body, including the skin, joints and internal organs.
Symptoms range from mild to severe, and many people will 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.
The rest of this article will focus on SLE.
Signs and symptoms
SLE can cause a wide range of symptoms, depending on the areas of the body that are affected. The most common symptoms are:
- fatigue (extreme tiredness)
- rashes – particularly on the face, wrists and hands
- joint pain and swelling
As the symptoms of SLE can be similar to a number of other conditions, many of which are more common, it can be difficult to diagnose.
If you have persistent or troublesome symptoms that you think could be caused by SLE, you should see your GP so they can try to determine the cause.
Read more about the symptoms of lupus and diagnosing lupus.
What causes lupus?
SLE is an autoimmune condition, which means it is 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 is thought a combination of genetic and environmental factors may be responsible for triggering SLE in certain people.
Read more about the causes of lupus.
Who is affected
SLE is an uncommon condition that is estimated to affect around 15,000 people in England and Wales.
Around 90% of cases occur in women. The condition is most common in women of childbearing age (between the ages of 15 and 50), but it can also affect people of other ages.
The condition tends to be less common in people of white European origin and more common in those of African, Caribbean or Asian origin.
How lupus is treated
There is 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 more about treating lupus.
A few decades ago SLE was regarded as a terminal condition, as many people would die of an associated complication within a few years of being diagnosed.
As a result of early diagnosis and advances in treatment, however, the outlook for SLE is now much better. The vast majority of people diagnosed with the condition will have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.
However, some people with SLE are still at risk of life-threatening complications as a result of damage to internal organs and tissues, such as heart attack or stroke. SLE, and some of the treatments for it, can also increase your risk of developing potentially serious infections.
Read more about the complications of lupus.