Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2020 | Last updated: January 2020
Lupus is a chronic, autoimmune disease in which the body attacks its own healthy tissue. It also reduces the body's ability to prevent and fight infection. Any part of the body can be touched by lupus, but the areas most often impacted include the joints, skin, kidneys, brain and other organs.1-4
Symptoms of lupus can be very different from person to person. Symptoms can be mild, moderate or severe, and may come and go. Symptoms may also be similar to other autoimmune diseases, which is why lupus is sometimes called the “great imitator.”
Many of the symptoms of lupus can be vague and non-specific, making it hard to get an accurate, or quick, diagnosis. Almost all people with lupus experience joint pain and extreme fatigue (tiredness). But other symptoms can be different for each individual.
Pain is the most common symptom of lupus with more than 90 percent of people with lupus reporting joint and muscle pain at some time. More than half mention joint pain as the first symptom they noticed. Lupus pain can take many forms throughout the body:1,3
Joint pain and swelling
Pain and stiffness in the joints, with and without swelling. May become full-blown arthritis. Appears most often in the fingers, wrists, ankles, and toes, but may occur in any joint.
Chest pain when taking a deep breath.
Muscle pain and weakness
Most often in the neck, thighs, shoulders, and upper arms (myositis).
Lupus was first described by doctors as a dermatologic (skin) condition. Lupus symptoms involving the skin may occur from head to toe.
- Hair loss – Patchy or bald spots (alopecia).
- Photosensitivity – Skin rash or eye strain that is a reaction to light or sun.
- Rash – A butterfly-shaped rash across the cheeks and nose (Malar rash) or a rash elsewhere on the body, most often on sun-exposed areas (discoid rash).
- Raynaud’s phenomenon – Fingers turn white or blue when cold.2,4
- Blood clotting – Blood that gets too thick to flow through the blood vessels, causing seizures and strokes.
- Anemia – Low red blood cell counts or low total blood volume. Contributes to fatigue.
- Leukopenia (low white blood cell count, leukocyte), lymphopenia (low white blood cell count, lymphocyte), thrombocytopenia (low blood platelet count).1,4
- Brain fog – Having trouble concentrating or remembering, getting confused.
- Dry eye – Tear ducts do not produce enough tears.
- Edema – Swelling in the feet, legs, hands, or around the eyes.
- Extreme fatigue – Tiredness or lack of energy that doesn’t get better with sleep.
- Fever – 100 degrees or higher with no other known cause.
- Psychosis – Delusions and hallucinations.
- Swollen lymph nodes – Tender to the touch. Also called lymphadenopathy.
- Ulcers – in the nose or mouth.
- Weight loss – Unexplained by diet and exercise.1-4
Diagnosis of lupus
There is no one test to diagnose lupus. However, there are many types of blood, urinalysis and imaging tests that can be used to diagnose lupus or rule out other autoimmune diseases. Your doctor will diagnose whether you have lupus based on the combination of symptoms and abnormal test results.
A symptom tracker may be helpful to record your symptoms and their severity in real-time. That way, you don’t have to rely only on your memory to be able to share the symptoms you experience between doctor’s appointments. Several phone apps exist to help you track your symptoms over time.4
Treatment for lupus symptoms
While there is no cure, there are many treatments for lupus. The type and combination of treatments your doctor recommends will be tailored to which symptoms you are experiencing and the severity of those symptoms.
Since symptoms can be so different from person to person, treatments vary widely too. Some treatments can stop, or slow progression of the organ damage lupus often causes. Others relieve pain and improve the quality of life for people living with lupus. Treatments usually include some combination of:5
- Antimalarial drugs
- Pain relievers (NSAIDs)
- Complementary and alternative medicine
- Lifestyle changes