In lupus, the body's immune system does not work as it should. A healthy immune system produces substances called antibodies that help fight and destroy viruses, bacteria, and other foreign substances that invade the body. In lupus, the immune system produces antibodies against the body's healthy cells and tissues. These antibodies, called autoantibodies ("auto" means self), contribute to the inflammation of various parts of the body, causing damage and altering the function of target organs and tissues. In addition, some autoantibodies join with substances from the body's own cells or tissues to form molecules called immune complexes. A buildup of these immune complexes in the body also contributes to inflammation and tissue injury in people with lupus. Researchers do not yet understand all of the factors that cause inflammation and tissue damage in lupus, and this is an active area of research.
Common Symptoms of Lupus
Painful or swollen joints and muscle pain
Red rashes, most commonly on the face.
Chest pain upon deep breathing (pleurisy)
Unusual loss of hair
Pale or purple fingers or toes from cold or stress (Raynaud's phenomenon)
Sensitivity to the sun
Swelling (edema) in legs or around eyes
In some people with lupus, only one system of the body such as the skin or joints is affected. Other people experience symptoms in many parts of their body. Just how seriously a body system is affected also varies from person to person. Most commonly, joints and muscles are affected, causing arthritis and muscle pain. Skin rashes are quite common. The following systems in the body also can be affected by lupus.
Kidneys: Inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis) can impair their ability to get rid of waste products and other toxins from the body effectively. Because the kidneys are so important to overall health, lupus affecting the kidneys generally requires intensive drug treatment to prevent permanent damage. There is usually no pain associated with kidney involvement, although some patients may notice that their ankles swell. Most often the only indication of kidney disease is an abnormal urine or blood test.
Lungs: Some people with lupus develop pleuritis, an inflammation of the lining of the chest cavity that causes chest pain, particularly with breathing. Patients with lupus also may get pneumonia.
Central nervous system: In some patients, lupus affects the brain or central nervous system. This can cause headaches, dizziness, memory disturbances, vision problems, stroke, or changes in behavior.
Blood vessels: Blood vessels may become inflamed (vasculitis), affecting the way blood circulates through the body. The inflammation may be mild and may not require treatment or may be severe and require immediate attention.
Blood: People with lupus may develop anemia, leukopenia (a decreased number of white blood cells), or a decrease in the number of platelets (thrombocytopenia). Some people with lupus may have abnormalities that cause an increased risk for blood clots.
Heart: In some people with lupus, inflammation can occur in the heart itself (myocarditis and endocarditis) or the membrane that surrounds it (pericarditis), causing chest pains or other symptoms. Lupus can also increase the risk of atherosclerosis.
Despite the symptoms of lupus and the potential side effects of treatment, people with lupus can maintain a high quality of life overall. One key to managing lupus is to understand the disease and its impact. Learning to recognize the warning signs of a flare can help the patient take steps to ward it off or reduce its intensity. Many people with lupus experience increased fatigue, pain, a rash, fever, abdominal discomfort, headache, or dizziness just before a flare. Developing strategies to prevent flares can also be helpful, such as learning to recognize your warning signals and maintaining good communication with your doctor.
Warning Signs of a Lupus Flare
Preventing a Flare
Learn to recognize your warning signals. Maintain good communication with your doctor.
People with lupus should receive regular preventive health care, such as gynecological and breast examinations. Regular dental care will help avoid potentially dangerous infections. If a person is taking corticosteroids or antimalarial medications, a yearly eye exam should be done to screen for and treat eye problems.
Staying healthy requires extra effort and care for people with lupus, so it becomes especially important to develop strategies for maintaining wellness. Wellness involves close attention to the body, mind, and spirit. One of the primary goals of wellness for people with lupus is coping with the stress of having a chronic disorder. Effective stress management varies from person to person. Some approaches that may help include exercise, relaxation techniques such as meditation, and setting priorities for spending time and energy.