Introduction of lupus

Lupus is a complex and poorly understood condition that affects many parts of the body and causes symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening.

Some common symptoms of lupus include:

  • fatigue
  • skin rash
  • joint pain and swelling

Autoimmune condition

Lupus is an autoimmune condition, which means it is caused by problems with the immune system (the body’s natural defence against illness and infection).

In people with lupus, for reasons not clearly understood, the immune system starts to attack 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 is responsible for triggering lupus in certain people.

Read more information about the causes of lupus.

Types of lupus

There are several types of lupus. The main types are:

  • discoid lupus erythematosus
  • drug-induced lupus
  • systemic lupus erythematosus

These are briefly outlined below.

Discoid lupus erythematosus

Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a mild form of lupus that only affects the skin. It causes symptoms such as:

  • red, circular, scaly marks on the skin that can thicken and scar
  • hair loss
  • permanent bald patches

DLE can usually be successfully controlled using medication and by avoiding exposure to direct sunlight. DLE usually only affects the skin but, in some cases, it can progress to the body’s tissues and organs.

Drug-induced lupus

There are over 100 medications known to cause lupus-like side effects in certain people. Lupus caused by medication is known as drug-induced lupus.

Stopping the course of medication will usually help resolve symptoms of drug-induced lupus. However, do not suddenly stop taking any prescribed medication without first checking with your GP.

Systemic lupus erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a type of lupus that can affect any body tissue and organ. SLE is what most people mean when they use the term ‘lupus’.

The symptoms of SLE can range from mild to severe. Many people will experience long periods of time with few or no symptoms before experiencing a sudden flare-up where their symptoms are particularly severe.

However, even mild cases of SLE can have a considerable impact on a person’s quality of life because many of the symptoms, particularly pain and chronic fatigue, can be distressing and cause feelings of depression and anxiety.

The rest of this article will focus on SLE.

Who is affected?

SLE is an uncommon condition, with 90% of cases occurring in women. Most cases of SLE first begin in women who are of childbearing age (between the ages of 15 and 50).

There are marked differences in how widespread SLE is among different ethnic groups. For example, in the UK:

  • one in every 5,000 white women will develop SLE
  • one in every 1,000 women of Chinese origin will develop SLE
  • one in every 625 African Caribbean women will develop SLE

The condition can be difficult to diagnose as there are many other common conditions with similar symptoms. Read more about how lupus is diagnosed.

Treating lupus

There is currently no cure for SLE, but there are different medications that can help relieve many of the symptoms and prevent progressive organ damage.

With good levels of support from friends, family and healthcare professionals, many people with SLE learn to manage their condition effectively.

50 years ago SLE was regarded as a terminal condition, as most people would die of a complication in the first 10 years after being diagnosed.

Thanks to advances in treatments, now most people with SLE have a normal, or near normal, life expectancy.

Read more information about how lupus is treated.

Complications of lupus

SLE can sometimes cause serious complications, such as kidney failure or heart disease, and the treatment may make a person vulnerable to serious infections.

Also, around one in three people with SLE have another autoimmune condition, such as thyroid disease, Sjogren’s syndrome or Hughes syndrome (antiphospholipid syndrome).

In some cases this can lead to complications, including problems during pregnancy.

Read more information about the complications of lupus.

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