What Is Lupus?

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Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE or lupus) is a disease in which the body’sLupus Rheumatica Treatment & Information Booklet natural defences (the immune system) are upset. Cells and antibodies, which are in the blood to defend the body against infection, begin to attack it instead and cause inflammation. Lupus is a systemic disease – that is, it can affect many different parts of your body.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Symptoms of lupus can include:

  • joint pain
  • a skin rash
  • extreme tiredness 
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • headaches
  • mouth ulcers
  • hair loss
  • swelling of lymph glands
  • your fingers or toes changing colour in cold conditions

If the inflammation affects your internal organs such as your heart, brain or kidneys, lupus can have more serious complications. It is important that you organise regular check-ups with your doctor to monitor this inflammation.

How is lupus diagnosed?

There is no single test to diagnose lupus. Based on the history of your illness, a physical examination and blood tests, your doctor will be able to diagnose you. Test results help to distinguish lupus from other conditions that may have similar symptoms.

A number of different blood tests may be used:

  • Anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) test
  • Anti-double-stranded DNA (anti-dsDNA) antibody test
  • Anti-Ro antibody test
  • Antiphospholipid antibody test
  • Complement level test
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) test
  • Kidney and liver function tests
  • Blood cell counts

These tests can also be helpful in monitoring your condition after diagnosis.

Tests to check on your heart, lungs, liver and spleen are also important. Depending on which organs your doctor thinks may be involved, you may have x-rays, an ultrasound scan, a computerised tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

A urine test can show if there’s protein or blood in your urine. This can help doctors to recognise a problem in your kidneys at a very early stage. You may need further tests, such as kidney filtration tests.

What treatments are there for lupus?

There is no single treatment for lupus but a combination of drugs and self-help measures, which will vary depending on your particular symptoms, can help to keep it under control.

Drugs may include:

  • anti-inflammatory drugs
  • steroid tablets, creams or injections
  • drugs which suppress your immune system
  • drugs to control high blood pressure and high cholesterol

Pregnancy and lupus

If you have lupus and are planning to have a baby, it is important to speak to your doctor first because your treatments may need to be altered. Try to plan your pregnancy when your lupus is inactive and you’re taking as little medication as possible.

A small number of women with very severe lupus may be advised against having a baby as pregnancy can put a great strain on their heart, lungs and kidneys. There’s an increased risk of pregnancy complications in women whose lupus affects a number of different organs and who find it difficult to control their symptoms without certain medications.

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