Lupus: What is it? Symptoms and Treatment


If the human body was interwoven into an analogy with a football match, then having lupus would compare to scoring an own goal. Our bodies have a complex system known as the immune system which is assigned the job of protecting the body from any foreign substances.

Normally, the function of the immune system in most cases is to produce antibodies, which have the specific function of attacking any foreign antigens (1). These are the harmful bacteria and viruses that somehow find their ways into our bodies.

Lupus, however, is known to be an autoimmune disease where the immune system is triggered into hyperactivity and it begins to attack healthy tissue in the body instead of the antigens (2). In this case, it fails to distinguish between antigens and the body’s own normal tissues.

Being an autoimmune disease means that it can form proteins known as antibodies to attack the very own body that houses it. The difference with lupus is that it can attack any part of the body or any organ, making it a grave condition. It is also more of a genetically passed down condition and known to run in families because of this reason (3).  

What are the symptoms of Lupus?

Lupus is known to exist in three main different types. While discoid lupus is the type which mainly attacks the skin, the more common form referred to as lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is more severe since it can attack any organ or part of the body.

The third type is known as drug-induced lupus whose cause is evident in its name. Symptoms vary according to the type of lupus, although there are certain common ones, which help distinguish lupus from other autoimmune diseases.

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE): being the most common form of lupus to attack the human body, its symptoms are extremely varied. Detecting and diagnosing lupus is a difficult task since it can affect any part of the body and manifest in any organ (4). The usual symptoms begin to show in the joints as aches and swelling, fatigue and hair loss. Some people with severe cases of lupus also sometimes suffer from seizures. 
  • Discoid Lupus: this is a kind of lupus that exhibits itself mainly on the skin. It is characteristically known by the rashes that it forms on the neck and face, and even the scalp at times (5). Luckily, it usually does not affect any internal organs, which makes it less severe than SLE. however, it remains to be as unpredictable as any other form of lupus.
  • Drug-induced lupus: some prescription drugs can induce a reaction in the body which mimics the symptoms of SLE. Hypertension and heart arrhythmia related medicine are usually the main culprits for such a condition. The advantage of having this type of lupus is that a sure way to stop the symptoms would be to stop the consumption of the medicine.

Does Lupus cause swelling?

Along with the many symptoms it exhibits, swelling is yet another major sign of lupus, especially on the joints. This resembles the signs of arthritis and it is not uncommon to see people with lupus suffering from arthritis (6). It is merely one of the ways in which the disease exhibits itself on the body.

Lupus as a disease tends to show up around the ages of 15-45 and it has been generally observed that women are more likely to suffer from it than men. Furthermore, trends tend to differ based on ethnicity. Statistics show that Caucasians are less likely to contract the condition than people of color such as Africans or Hispanics (7).

It is an observation that around 5 million people suffer from this condition worldwide, making it a commonly known condition. However, common misconceptions are often rampant about lupus.

One of the most frequent questions is whether the disease is contagious, and the answer to that is no, it is not. Being an autoimmune disease means that it is more of a genetic condition, meaning it cannot be transmitted from person to person by coming into contact.

Is Lupus fatal?

Although it is explained to be a severe and unpredictable condition, it is not potentially fatal (8). It can be caused or triggered by both genetic dispositions as well as certain environmental factors. Some of the most common risk factors that dermatologists warn people about are sun exposure, specific prescription medicines, as well as a possible infection of Epstein-Barr virus.

Whereas environmental factors are those which induce emotional stress, and acts like smoking or exposing yourself to ultraviolet light. Despite these conditions being hard to avoid, it is reassuring to know that lupus today can be quite easily controlled with the right treatment and medication.

Is Lupus curable?

Although lupus as a disease is incurable, there are many advancements made in medicine which make it easily controllable and easy for the patient to live a near normal lifestyle. The major forms of treatment for lupus exist in the form of corticosteroids and immunosuppressants.

Is Lupus cancer?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is one of the autoimmune diseases which have always held a link with cancer symptoms. They are in fact referred to as an increased risk of developing specific types of cancer. The chances of getting lymphoma and in some cases, cervical cancer (9).

In some rare cases, the treatment for lupus is known to contribute to increased chances of cancer. These are because of immunosuppressive medications. In particular, mycophenolate and azathioprine are being studied extensively for their contribution to such side effects. However, more progress needs to be done in such research before definitive conclusions are made about the connection between cancer and lupus.

Lupus as a skin disease shows itself in its early stages of development. These begin as rashes on the cheeks and nose. Most often these are called butterfly rashes, and they begin to spread and develop into mouth sores and may even cause hair loss in its more severe stages.

The chances of getting circular rashes which are capable of scarring are very high with discoid lupus and must be treated at the earliest with the help of dermatologists. If treated early and consistently, lupus can be a simple skin condition to live with and manage.

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Picture of Dr Jisha Gomez

Dr Jisha Gomez

She is a highly skilled dermatology physician with strong expertise in improving skin & hair health through the development of corrective treatment combinations. She completed her Post-graduate Diploma in Dermatology from Cardiff, UK & Fellowship in Aesthetic Medicine (FAM) from the Institute of Laser and Aesthetic Medicine, Delhi with over 5+ years experience treating skin patients. She has worked in Government hospitals in Trivandrum and Bangalore. She is actively involved in creating awareness for healthy skin, breaking the social stigma based on skin colour & stopping steroid abuse in our country.