Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), commonly known as "lupus," is an autoimmune illness. The immune system, which normally protects the body from foreign invaders and infection, malfunctions and instead attacks a person's own healthy body tissues. Its cause is unknown, but most scientists believe that genetics, combined with outside triggers (such as infections, medications or other environmental factors) lead people to develop lupus. Lupus is a lifelong condition, but symptoms tend to cycle in alternate periods of "flares" (or "flares-ups") and remissions. Lupus affects women much more than men. There is no known cure, but numerous treatments are available.
If your primary care doctor suspects you may have lupus, contact a rheumatologist to confirm the diagnosis and get appropriate treatment. HSS is top ranked for rheumatology by U.S.News & World Report.
Get quick facts about lupus with this infographic.
There are several different forms of lupus
Symptoms vary from person to person, but the typical lupus patient is a young woman experiencing fever, swollen lymph nodes (glands), butterfly-shaped rash on her face, arthritis of the fingers, wrists or other small joints, hair loss, chest pain and protein in the urine. Symptoms usually begin in only one or two areas of the body, but more may develop over time. The most common signs and symptoms of lupus are:
In addition to discussing these and other symptoms with you, your doctor will order a variety of tests to confirm a diagnosis of lupus. These may include blood, urine and biochemical tests. People with lupus often have false-positive test results for syphilis.
The severity of lupus varies from mild to life threatening. Kidney problems and neurologic complications are more dangerous than the rashes, arthritis or other symptoms. After many years of having lupus, patients may develop hypertension (high blood pressure), accelerated atherosclerosis (plaque and fat build-up in the arteries), heart and lung diseases, kidney failure or osteoporosis. With proper treatment, the majority of people diagnosed with lupus have a normal life expectancy, but many will experience disabilities. Each patient will likely have his or her own specific pattern of symptoms and flares, but the disease can change over time.
Lupus patients who are positive for antiphospholipid antibody (aPL) can develop blood clots and valvular heart disease. These patients require additional medications, such aspirin, warfarin (Coumadin), heparin, or low-molecular-weight heparin (Lovenox or Fragmin) to reduce the risk of clots.
Many women with lupus ask "it safe for me to get pregnant?" or "can I have a healthy pregnancy?" Pregnancy is possible in most patients with lupus, but complications are frequent. Anyone with lupus should be considered to have a high risk for health complications during pregnancy. When a woman with lupus becomes pregnant or is planning to become pregnant, she should get a referral for appropriate, specialized care. Lupus patients who are positive for aPL are at high risk of miscarriage, while patients with anti-Ro/SSA and anti-La/SSB antibodies are at risk for delivering a child with neonatal lupus.
People with lupus are at great risk of contracting kidney disease. Kidney failure occurs in a minority of patients with lupus nephritis, despite advances in therapy. These patients must undergo dialysis. About one-third of patients who start dialysis during an acute lupus flare will be able to discontinue it within the first year. The remaining two-thirds, and those suffering gradual deterioration of kidney function over several years will require either continual dialysis for life or a kidney transplant.
Depending on the symptoms, blood test results and the particular organs involved, a person with lupus may receive one or more of the following: