Lupus can develop in people of all ages, including children. Lupus that develops under the age of 18 (pediatric lupus) tends to be more severe than lupus that starts in adulthood.

Lupus is an autoimmune condition in which your immune system attacks tissues throughout your body. It can affect any organ system.

The most common type of lupus is called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). It’s estimated to affect about 72.8 per 100,000 people in the United States. Black females have the highest risk of SLE with an estimated rate of 230.9 per 100,000 people.

SLE is called pediatric lupus or juvenile-onset SLE when it develops in people under the age of 18. Pediatric lupus makes up about 15% to 20% of cases. It’s estimated to affect 1.89 to 34.1 children per 100,000.

Lupus can cause many different symptoms that range from mild to severe. Pediatric lupus tends to cause more severe symptoms than SLE in adults.

In this article, we cover everything you need to know about lupus in children.

Language matters

You’ll notice that we use the terms “female(s),” “women,” and “mother” to share stats and other data points in this article.

Although we typically avoid language like this in favor of more inclusive language, specificity is key when reporting on research participants and clinical findings.

Unfortunately, the studies and surveys referenced in this article didn’t report data on, or include, participants who were transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, agender, or genderless.

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Types of lupus in children

SLE is the most common type of lupus in children and adults. It causes widespread inflammation and can damage tissues like the:

  • brain
  • joints
  • skin
  • kidneys
  • blood vessels

Pediatric SLE most often develops in children of ages 12 to 14.

Other types of lupus include:

  • Cutaneous lupus erythematosus: Cutaneous lupus erythematosus is a type of lupus that only affects the skin.
  • Drug-induced lupus: Drug-induced lupus is an autoimmune condition that develops when a drug triggers the development of SLE.
  • Neonatal lupus: Neonatal lupus develops when antibodies that cause lupus are transferred from a mother to her fetus.

Lupus can cause symptoms that range from mild to severe. Signs and symptoms of lupus include:

Lupus tends to affect the following areas more in children than in adults:

  • kidneys
  • blood
  • brain

Researchers don’t know why some people develop SLE, but risk factors include:

  • female sex (more than 90% of people with lupus are women)
  • ethnicity (Black and Hispanic females are 2 to 3 times more likely to develop lupus than white women, which may be due to healthcare inequities.)
  • family history of SLE or related autoimmune disease
  • crystalline silica exposure
  • pollution exposure
  • smoking tobacco cigarettes
  • taking oral birth control
  • ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure
  • exposure to some chemicals like:
    • dry-cleaning solvents
    • nail polish removers
  • exposure to heavy metals like mercury
  • some infections

Lupus can cause many different complications, such as:

Doctors diagnose lupus with a combination of testing methods, such as:

  • examining your child’s personal and family medical history
  • looking for characteristic features like a rash
  • using blood and urine tests to look for lupus antibodies
  • performing skin or kidney biopsies

Lupus doesn’t have a cure, but medications can help reduce flare-ups. These include:

  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids can help reduce immune system activity. They’re the main treatment for both children and adults.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs like ibuprofen can help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Antimalarial drugs: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there’s evidence that antimalarial drugs can help stop flare-ups and increase the life span.
  • B lymphocyte stimulator (BLyS)-specific inhibitors: These drugs reduce the number of cells that produce antibodies. Belimumab (Benlysta) is Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved for children older than 5 years.
  • Immunosuppressants: Immunosuppressants reduce immune system activity.

Learn more about lupus treatment.

The Lupus Foundation of America recommends encouraging children to:

  • use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher and wear protective clothing when in the sun
  • wash their hands often
  • ask for help when needed
  • take breaks when they feel tired or stressed
  • tell adults when they aren’t feeling well

It’s important to seek medical attention if your child has potential lupus symptoms like a butterfly rash or fever with no known cause.

It’s also important to get medical attention if your child’s symptoms get worse or they develop new symptoms.

Medical emergency

Lupus can cause life threatening complications. Call 911 or local emergency medical services or go to the nearest emergency room if your child develops severe symptoms like:

Researchers haven’t identified any proven ways to prevent lupus. According to the CDC, you may be able to minimize flare-ups by ensuring that your child:

Children with lupus tend to have a poorer outlook than adults with lupus. The course of the disease varies significantly between children. The disease course can range from being mild to resulting in a severely reduced life expectancy.

SLE in children tends to be more severe than SLE in adults and has a higher need for treatment with corticosteroids and immunosuppressants.

Here are some frequently asked questions people have about lupus in children.

What is the youngest age to get lupus?

People of any age can develop lupus, including infants. SLE is extremely rare in children under 5 years old.

Will my other children also get lupus?

The risk of SLE is estimated to be 29 times higher in siblings of children with lupus than in the general population.

Can vaccinations cause lupus?

Theoretically, some vaccines may cause immune hyperactivity that might lead to lupus. Researchers are continuing to investigate a potential link. If you have concerns regarding SLE and vaccines, speak with a doctor.

Will my child need to be on medications for the rest of their life?

Lupus doesn’t currently have a cure. Treatment needs to be continued throughout life.

Lupus can develop in people of all ages, including children or adolescents. Lupus that develops under the age of 18 tends to be more severe than lupus that starts in adulthood.

Lupus doesn’t have a cure, but it can be managed with medications. Encouraging your child to take their medication as prescribed and to follow other preventive steps gives them the best chance of enjoying a high quality of life.