Living with Lupus


Genetics, the environment, and hormones may play a role in lupus.

Genetics, the environment, and hormones may play a role in lupus.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), also known as lupus, is a chronic autoimmune medical condition that causes inflammation and mainly affects the joints, kidneys, and skin. In addition, SLE can affect parts of the body such as the nervous system, the skin and other organs, and the blood.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, an estimated 1.5 million Americans have 1 of the 5 types of lupus and, in 70% of those cases, individuals are diagnosed with SLE. An estimated 16,000 new cases are diagnosed annually, and the condition primarily affects females between 15 and 45 years of age, but it can occur at any age.

While the exact cause of lupus is not known, scientists believe that genetics, the environment, and hormones have a role in the development of lupus.

What Are the Symptoms of Lupus?

The symptoms associated with lupus vary from individual to individual and in severity. The symptoms may appear abruptly or develop gradually and may come and go. Flare-ups occur when symptoms worsen, and remission occurs when symptoms appear to improve. An estimated 95% of patients with SLE experience joint pain and some degree of swelling. Other common symptoms include weight changes, fever, chest pain, extreme fatigue or general feeling of malaise, anemia, kidney problems, sensitivity to light, skin rash (typically in a butterfly formation) over the cheeks and bridge of the nose, painless ulcers in the nose or mouth, hair loss, headaches, and abnormal blood clotting.

How is Lupus Diagnosed?

Diagnosing lupus is not always easy, especially because many symptoms associated with lupus may occur with other medical conditions. A diagnosis of lupus can be determined by your physician based on your current symptoms, physical examination, lab results (including complete blood count, urinalysis, antinuclear antibody test, and other blood tests if needed), medical history, and family medical history.

Although there is no cure for SLE, many treatment options are available for treating and managing a variety of symptoms. A rheumatologist (a doctor who specializes in the treatment of SLE) can effectively manage SLE with proper treatment. In general, the goals of treating SLE include the following:

  • Improving the patient’s overall quality of life
  • Decreasing inflammation caused by SLE
  • Preventing flare-ups and treating them when they occur
  • Managing symptoms such as fatigue and joint pain/swelling
  • Decreasing damage to organs and decreasing complications

Available treatment options for SLE include antiinflammatory agents, corticosteroids, antimalarials, and immunosuppressives. Your physician will prescribe a treatment plan tailored to your individual needs and symptoms.

Your physician will encourage you to eat a well-balanced diet and to exercise when possible. It is very important that you adhere to your treatment plan and maintain routine visits with your primary health care provider. You should also get a yearly influenza vaccine if appropriate. If you are planning to have a baby, you should discuss this with your physician to decrease the risks associated with pregnancy and to ensure that you and your unborn child stay healthy.

Although having lupus may present challenges to your everyday routine, educating yourself about lupus and taking a proactive role in your health can help you to lead a healthy and active life. It is important for you to take care of yourself, minimize stress when possible by incorporating relaxation techniques into your daily routine, eat a healthy diet, know how to minimize flare-ups, and keep a symptom diary to share with your primary health care provider at each visit.

Ms. Terrie is a clinical pharmacy writer based in Haymarket, Virginia.


  • Could I have lupus? The US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health website. Accessed January 2, 2014.
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). The American College of Rheumatology website. Accessed January 2, 2014.
  • What are the risk factors for developing lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Accessed January 2, 2014.

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