Lupus is a type of autoimmune disease. This means it causes your body’s immune system to attack healthy tissues and organs instead of only attacking foreign substances that could harm your body. The disease can cause widespread damage to areas of the body, including the joints, skin, heart, blood vessels, brain, kidneys, bones, and lungs.
There are several different kinds of lupus, each with slightly different triggers and symptoms. Researchers don’t know exactly what causes lupus, but we do know that genetics play a role and that it’s much more common in women.
The majority of people with lupus experience some type of skin issue during the course of their disease. Skin involvement and symptoms can vary depending on the type of lupus you have and how active your lupus is.
One of the telltale signs of lupus is developing a rash on the face. Redness covers the nose and cheeks and looks like it’s in the shape of a butterfly. The rash is commonly called butterfly rash and usually appears on the face, but it can also show up on your arms, legs, or elsewhere on the body.
Lupus also causes your skin to be more sensitive to the sun or artificial ultraviolet light. Unprotected sun exposure can cause ring-shaped marks that can become red and scaly. These can form on your scalp and face, or other areas that get sun exposure, like your neck or arms.
Ulcers or sores can form in your mouth on the cheek or gums. They can also form on your nose, scalp, or vaginal tissue. These sores may not hurt at all or they might feel like a canker sore. They’re signs of inflammation from the disease and can be uncomfortable.
Sjogren's syndrome is common in people with autoimmune disorders, like lupus. It causes your mouth and eyes to feel very dry. You might experience trouble speaking or swallowing, or have itchy, burning eyes.
Dry mouth can also put you at a higher risk of getting cavities, because saliva helps protect your teeth from bacteria. The cavities occur at the gumline and can strongly suggest the diagnosis of Sjogren’s.
Some people with lupus may experience alopecia, or hair loss. Lupus can cause hair to be dry or more brittle. Hair may break or fall out, particularly at the front of the forehead. The hair may grow back, or you may have permanent bald spots.
The pancreas is a gland behind the stomach that controls digestion enzymes and hormones that regulate how your body processes sugar. If it can’t work properly, you’re at risk of infection, digestive problems, and diabetes.
Lupus can cause inflammation of the pancreas, called pancreatitis, either from inflamed blood vessels or medications, like steroids or immunosuppressants used to treat the disease.
Having lupus can affect your heart and blood vessels. People with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have a higher risk of developing heart disease. In fact, heart disease is one of the most common causes of death in people with lupus.
You’ll need to take extra precautions, like eating an anti-inflammatory diet and staying physically active in order to maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Lupus also causes arteries to become inflamed. Inflammation can cause blood vessels to break and bleed inside the tissue where they’re located. When this happens with smaller vessels, like in the skin, the only symptom may be some skin discoloration. In other tissues, like the brain or heart, a bleeding vessel can become a major risk and be potentially deadly. Inflammation could also lead to infection.
Although less common, anemia can also be caused by lupus. It happens when the body has less red blood cells. For people with lupus, this can be due to inflammation, bleeding, or the immune system attacking them.
Memory problems or trouble thinking, often called “brain fog” can happen when someone has had lupus for a few years. Inflammation or lack of oxygen to parts of the brain cause problems with cognitive function. You may also experience changes in behavior, hallucinations, or have a hard time expressing your thoughts.
A chronic pain disorder, fibromyalgia, may co-occur with lupus and other autoimmune disorders. Fibromyalgia causes chronic pain, tenderness, fatigue, irritable bowels, and trouble sleeping. It can be responsible for the pain felt by people with lupus. It’s thought to be caused by changes in the pathways that lead to the brain and spinal cord, or the sensors for pain within the brain.
Headaches that feel like migraines, often called lupus headaches, can be caused by inflamed blood vessels around the brain.
Your immune system is designed to protect your body from harm. A healthy immune system attacks foreign substances, like bacteria, viruses, and infections that make you sick.
Lupus, like other autoimmune diseases, results from the immune system malfunctioning and attacking healthy tissues in the body instead. These attacks on the body’s healthy tissue may cause permanent damage over time.
Inflammation that happens in certain areas is the result of white blood cells attacking a substance. When the white blood cells are attacking a foreign body, the inflammation goes away once the invader is gone. If they’re seeing healthy tissue as a threat, inflammation will continue as they keep attacking. The inflammation itself can cause pain and long-term scarring that causes permanent damage.
Your digestive system moves food through the body, taking nutrients in, and getting rid of waste. This process starts at the mouth and goes through the intestines. Lupus, and some medications used to manage symptoms, can cause side effects in the digestive system.
Inflammation in your esophagus caused by lupus can trigger heartburn.
Problems with the digestive system, like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation are often symptoms from medications used to treat lupus. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), taken to treat pain in people with lupus and other chronic conditions, can also increase risk of bleeding ulcers in the stomach lining.
Your liver helps with digestion and removes alcohol and other substances from the blood. Inflammation in the liver can stop it from working properly, causing blood clots in the vessels bringing blood to the liver, and resulting in an enlarged liver.
Lupus can also cause your immune system to attack joints, causing pain and arthritis. When joints become inflamed, it causes pain and long-term damage. Lupus arthritis can occasionally affect large joints, like knees and hips, but more commonly affects smaller joints, like in the hands and wrists.
Some medications used to treat lupus can cause bone loss or osteoporosis. This leaves you vulnerable to bone fractures and breaks.
Having lupus puts you at a higher risk of developing infections and getting pneumonia.
Inflammation and fluid buildup in or around the lungs can create a variety of different complications for people with lupus. It can also cause chest pain when you take a deep breath.
Lupus doesn’t directly affect your reproductive organs, but the disease can cause complications during pregnancy. A pregnancy with lupus is considered high risk and requires more frequent doctor’s visits for monitoring. Risks include:
- premature deliver
It’s also possible for a baby to be born with neonatal lupus syndrome, a condition that affects the heartbeat and causes a rash.
However, a woman with lupus most often gives birth to a healthy baby. She may just need additional care from her doctor during the pregnancy.
Your kidneys are extremely important for maintaining good health. They help remove waste from the blood, regulate blood volume and pressure, and filter waste out through urine.
Kidney problems are common in people with lupus, often brought on by long-term inflammation in the kidneys. Symptoms of kidney disease include:
- blood in the urine
- swelling in your abdomen
- leg or ankle swelling
- nausea and vomiting
While lupus does have the ability to cause symptoms throughout the body, it doesn’t mean you’re going to experience all of these.
Your individual symptoms and their severity will depend on the type of lupus you have and other factors. These include your genetics and how long you’ve had the disease. If your lupus is well-controlled, you may have very mild symptoms.