Lupus is an autoimmune disorder meaning that the immune system of a person with lupus, for reasons not well understood, attacks the body’s own healthy cells, tissue, and organs. The resulting symptoms can vary hugely from person to person. In the most common cases the skin and joints are affected. Other symptoms experienced by some, though certainly not all, lupus sufferers include fevers, swollen lymph glands, mouth ulcers, hair loss, high blood pressure, headaches, stomach pain, chest pain, depression, dry eyes, memory loss, seizures, psychosis, shortness of breath, and fluid retention (swelling) in the ankles and other joints.

Lupus is, at present, incurable. It affects mostly women , and most commonly affects those around child-bearing age. It is most common among those of African, Caribbean, or Asian origin . In total it is thought around 15,000 people in England and Wales are affected .

‘Lupus’ can refer to a number of conditions sharing common symptoms and similar causes. Examples include;

  • Discoid lupus, which only affects the skin,
  • Drug-induced lupus occurs after taking a medication, with symptoms usually subsiding within around six months. Usually, though, the term ‘lupus’ is used to designate a particular form of the condition,
  • Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE). SLE can affect an individual’s internal organs, as well as their skin and joints. The possibility of damage to internal organs including the kidneys, heart, lungs, and brain – which can be irreparable – is one of the biggest causes of concern for many lupus sufferers and is often a central focus of treatment in many cases. Most SLE sufferers will experience fatigue, skin rashes, and joint pain.

Though currently incurable, a number of medications and treatments are available to relieve lupus-related symptoms and to prevent a patient’s lupus from damaging their organs. As a result, while lupus was once considered a terminal illness , many sufferers are now able to manage their symptoms and the progression of the condition to the extent that most people diagnosed with lupus will have roughly normal life-expectancies . It does however remain possible to experience very serious complications – including heart attacks and strokes – as a result of lupus. Such improved outcomes are associated with early diagnosis and early treatment, so it is very important to visit a doctor or other qualified health professional if you think you might have lupus.

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Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 2 February 2016

Next review: 2 February 2019