What is Lupus?

What is Lupus?

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What is Lupus and what are the symptoms?


What is Lupus?

Selena Gomez has had a kidney transplant because of it. It’s often mentioned on medical TV dramas. It provokes interest because it can cause a huge number of symptoms, and it can be very tricky to diagnose. But what is Lupus?

  • Lupus is a chronic (long term) condition caused by a problem with the immune system.
  • Normally, our immune system is supposed to keep us fit and healthy, by fighting off bacterial and viral illness. But in Lupus, the immune system goes wrong, and attacks the body’s own tissues instead- leading to inflammation in many parts of the body- including the skin, blood vessels, heart, joints, muscles and kidneys.


What causes Lupus and who is most at risk?

  • It’s not known why people get Lupus. There does seem to be a genetic aspect to it, as it can run in families.
  • Episodes can be triggered by stress, infection, UV light and as a rare side effect of certain medications
  • It’s most common between the ages of 15 and 40
  • It’s more common in women
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What are the symptoms of Lupus?

Symptoms of Lupus can vary widely from person to person, ranging from mild to severe. Not every person with Lupus gets all the symptoms, and symptoms may come and go. It can also evolve over time- some symptoms of Lupus may develop years after the first presentation. All this variation can make it quite hard to pin down and diagnose. Symptoms of Lupus may include:

  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Skin rashes- there may be a rash on the body, or a typical “butterfly rash” on the face, so-called due to its shape. There also may be rashes caused by sunlight exposure (photosensitivity).
  • Tiredness
  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Fevers
  • Unusual chest pains
  • Shortness of breath
  • Abnormal blood tests results- your doctor may pick Lupus up as an abnormality in your blood count, kidney function, liver function, inflammatory markers or auto-antibodies.

Sufferers may get “flares”, with a sudden increase in their lupus symptoms.

How do you get tested for Lupus?

There is no single simple test for Lupus, so it can be tricky to diagnose. Diagnosis is based on a combination of the history of symptoms (as noted above), and certain abnormalities that may be seen on blood tests and other investigations.

  • Anaemia, low white blood cell count, low platelet count may be seen
  • Increased protein in the urine in some cases
  • Raised ANA (antinuclear antibodies)-  high ANA levels may be seen in Lupus, but mildly raised ANA is usually a “false positive”- so this test has to be interpreted very carefully. It’s not always reliable.
  • A number of other autoimmune antibodies may be increased, such as antiphospholipid antibodies.
  • Chest X-Ray- this may show fluid in the lungs (effusion)

Other tests may be recommended depending on symptoms- some people may present with rarer complications.

What are the complications of Lupus?

Whilst treatment can reduce the chances of complications, unfortunately some people develop serious health issues related to Lupus, such as

  • Kidney Disease and Kidney Failure
  • Involvement of the brain- which may present as confusion, headaches, changes in behaviour, memory problems, seizures or even strokes.
  • Inflammation of the heart and heart attacks
  • Inflammation of the blood vessels can lead to problems with clotting and circulation
  • Pleurisy (inflamed lungs)
  • Bone problems- blood supply to the bones can be reduced, causing death of bone tissue, and pain- most commonly the hip.
  • Infections due to a weakened immune system
  • Complications in pregnancy
symptoms of Lupus, understanding how to test for Lupus, recognising Lupus symptoms
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What is the treatment for Lupus?

Treatment depends on the symptoms and severity and which part(s) of the body are affected. Options include:

  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Steroids
  • Drugs that suppress the immune system
  • Certain drugs used to treat malaria may be useful to treat Lupus and prevent flares (eg Plaquenil)

If you have concerns about Lupus, speak to your GP.

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About the Author:

Aifric Boylan
Dr Aifric Boylan is an experienced GP based in Melbourne. She completed medical school at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and undertook specialist training as a General Practitioner. She has 10 years experience working in General Practice and currently works as a full time family doctor in Melbourne, with a special interest in women’s health and paediatrics. She is a medical writer, covering common health issues in General Practice, as well as publications and opinion pieces in the medical press.

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