Lupus is a disease that can affect people of all ages, races, and ethnicities. The signs and symptoms mimic those of other diseases, making it hard to diagnose. Learn more.
What Is Lupus?
Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease that affects many different parts of the body. An autoimmune disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks itself because it cannot tell the difference between healthy tissue and foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses.
Lupus symptoms can show up in many different ways and are often mistaken for symptoms of other diseases. This is why it can be hard to diagnose and is often called “the great imitator.” Lupus symptoms can range from mild to life threatening, so early diagnosis and treatment by a rheumatologist are important. A rheumatologist is a doctor who has additional training and experience in the diagnosis and treatment of arthritis, lupus, and other diseases of the joints, muscles, and bones.
Lupus Health Disparities
Systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, is the most common type of lupus and can affect multiple organs. While SLE can occur in anyone, it is more common among Black and Latina women and women of childbearing age (15 to 44). Ninety percent of people with lupus are women. Among women, Black and Latina women are 2 to 3 times more likely than White women to develop lupus and have more severe disease progression. In a study examining death rates among people with SLE, Black people had higher rates of death than White people, and deaths occurred sooner after diagnosis. Among those with SLE, Black people were significantly younger when they died than White people (average age of 52 vs. 64).
Signs and Symptoms of Lupus
People with SLE can have many different symptoms, including:
- Fatigue or extreme exhaustion no matter how much they sleep
- Muscle and joint pain or swelling
- Skin rashes (in particular a butterfly-shaped face rash across the cheeks and nose)
- Hair loss
- Recurring mouth sores
Additional symptoms or conditions can include:
- Sensitivity to the sun
- Lung problems
- Chest pain when deep breathing
- Fingers or toes turning blue or white or feeling numb
- Heart problems
- Kidney problems
- Psychosis (disruptive thoughts and perceptions about what is or is not real)
- Blood cell and immunological abnormalities (anemia or clotting problems)
- Eye diseases
- Memory problems
People with SLE can have periods of lupus symptoms called flares, followed by symptom-free periods called remissions. They may have flares often, or years apart, throughout their life and with varying severity. There is no cure for SLE, but many people with the disease can manage their symptoms with proper treatment and lead a full, happy life. Getting an early diagnosis and getting treatment are critical to preventing long-term consequences and managing symptoms.
How Is Lupus Diagnosed?
There is no single test for SLE. To diagnose SLE, a doctor will take into account the patient’s symptoms, signs observed during physical exams, and the results of X-rays and lab tests. SLE may be hard to diagnose because its signs and symptoms are not specific and can look like signs and symptoms of other diseases. SLE may also be misdiagnosed, so it is important to see a doctor who specializes in rheumatology for a second opinion.
Other Types of Lupus Among Adults
- Cutaneous lupus (skin lupus) affects the skin in the form of a rash or lesions. This type of lupus can occur on any part of the body but usually appears where the skin is exposed to sunlight.
- Drug-induced lupus is similar to SLE, but it is caused by a reaction to some medicines. Symptoms usually appear 3 to 6 months after starting a medicine and disappear once the medicine is stopped.
How Is Lupus Treated?
Although there is no cure for lupus, it can be managed with proper treatment, and people with lupus can go on to live long, happy lives. The goals of treatment are to manage current symptoms, prevent future flares, and prevent damage to joints and organs by calming the immune system. Because the symptoms of lupus vary widely, management depends on a person’s individual symptoms and needs. Seeing a doctor regularly and following the prescribed course of treatments is important. Beyond that, adopting healthy behaviors and learning skills to manage the disease can also be beneficial.
To improve overall health and quality of life, people with lupus should:
- Be physically active
- Eat healthy meals
- Get plenty of rest
- Avoid smoking
- Wear sunscreen and avoid excessive sun exposure
Self-management education workshops, such as the Chronic Disease Self-Management Program, can help people with lupus learn how to manage daily life, medications, and interactions with doctors, as well as improve energy and pain management. Visit Learn More. Feel Better. for more information about self-management education programs and other tools and resources that can improve quality of life for people living with lupus.
- CDC’s Lupus Site
- National Resource Center on Lupus external icon
- The Lupus Initiative external icon
- American College of Rheumatology external icon(ACR)
- Lupus Foundation of America external icon(LFA)
- Be Fierce. Take Control., a health campaign by ACR and LFAexternal icon
- National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseasesexternal icon
- Learn More. Feel Better.
- Lim SS, Helmick CG, Bao G, et al. Racial Disparities in Mortality Associated with Systemic Lupus Erythematosus — Fulton and DeKalb Counties, Georgia, 2002–2016. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:419–422.