Lupus

[lo͞opəs]

Doctor consulting with female patient

Lupus is a chronic disease that can damage any organ. Although there are different types of lupus, the most common and well understood type is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Most of the information below refers to SLE.

Lupus occurs when the immune system attacks healthy tissue because it cannot tell the difference between foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses, and the body. Scientists believe lupus is caused by a combination of hormones, family history or inherited factors, and environmental factors.

People with lupus may have symptoms that include tiredness, joint pain, sensitivity to sunlight, and a butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose. About 9 in 10 (90%) people with the disease are women. Although there is currently no cure for lupus, many people with the disease can manage their symptoms with proper treatment.

Quiz

Key Facts

  • There are four types of lupus: systemic (the most common type), cutaneous (affecting just the skin), drug-induced (temporary), and neonatal (affecting newborn babies).
  • Some people with lupus don’t have visible signs of the disease but may still suffer from unseen symptoms like joint pain.
  • Lupus should always be treated by a doctor. With careful treatment, most people with lupus can live a normal, fulfilling life.
  • People cannot “catch” lupus.  It is not contagious or sexually transmitted.
Three women
Common Symptoms of Lupus

Lupus can affect many different organs, causing a wide range of signs and symptoms. These symptoms may come and go, and different symptoms may appear at different times during the course of the disease.

Woman holding sore shoulder
Pain

Many people with lupus have re-occurring muscle or joint pain. Pain medicines can help, but they also come with risks and side effects. Physical activity can help ease the pain without the side effects of medication.

Tired woman
Fatigue

Many people with lupus often feel tired or exhausted. Good sleep patterns, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and support groups can help people with lupus feel better and have more energy.

Woman taking temperature
Fever

People with lupus may develop fevers when they are having a lupus flare (high disease activity) or an infection. Fever can be especially dangerous when taking certain lupus medications, so it is important to contact a doctor for fevers of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or higher.

Brush filled with hair
Hair Loss

Many people with lupus have hair loss. It can be a side effect of the disease itself or may be caused by the medications used to treat lupus. Hair is likely to grow back if there is no scarring, but scarring from lupus on the scalp can cause hair loss to be permanent.

Prevention Tips

Although lupus is not preventable, people with lupus can take steps to manage their disease and prevent or minimize lupus flares:

  • It’s important for people with lupus to take their medications as directed by their health care providers. Taking lupus medications as prescribed, even when someone with lupus doesn’t feel sick, will help prevent lupus flares and minimize side effects.
  • Exposure to UV rays from sunlight and other light sources can trigger flares in many people with lupus. Staying out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., applying sunscreen every day, and wearing sun-protective clothing can prevent UV rays from triggering a lupus flare.
  • Emotional stress and exhaustion can trigger flares. It is important for people with lupus to get plenty of sleep and stay rested. Avoiding stress by planning ahead for activities and asking for help when needed can also prevent flares.
  • Although there is no special diet for people with lupus, it’s important to eat a variety of nutritious foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and moderate servings of lean protein such as meat, fish, and beans. People with lupus should avoid eating alfalfa, because it has been associated with lupus flares.
Page last reviewed: May 13, 2022