What Is Lupus?

May 2, 2023

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), or lupus, is an autoimmune disorder—an inflammatory disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s own cells. SLE can affect most parts of the body, including the skin, brain, joints, lungs, kidneys, and blood vessels.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

  • Fever caused by inflammation or infection
  • Muscle and joint pain, swelling, and stiffness, typically in the neck, shoulders, upper arms, and upper legs
  • Rashes on skin exposed to sunlight, often in a butterfly shape on the face
  • Chest pain with inhalation
  • Patchy bald spots
  • Kidney inflammation with weight gain, swollen ankles, high blood pressure, lowered kidney function
  • Painless ulcers on the roof or elsewhere in the mouth, or soreness or dryness of the mouth
  • Tiredness
  • Anemia, or lack of red blood cells to carry oxygen
  • Forgetfulness or confusion
  • Internal blood clots in the lungs, legs, heart, or brain
  • Miscarriages, or spontaneous abortions
  • Dry or inflamed eyes, or rashes on eyelids

How is lupus diagnosed?

Lupus is diagnosed by blood tests for antibodies to the patient’s own body cells and low numbers of white blood cells, red blood cells, and clotting blood cells. Inflammation in the blood is measured by erythrocyte (red blood cell) sedimentation rate.

How is lupus treated?

A lot of progress has been made in recent years in treating autoimmune disorders. In 2011, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Benlysta (belimumab) for the treatment of lupus. Patients inject this drug under the skin once a week. A list of other immunosuppressants includes:

  • Imuran (azathiaprine)
  • Cellcept (mycophenolate mofetil)
  • Sandimmune (cyclosporine)
  • Rheumatrex (methotrexate)
  • Arava (leflunomide)
  • Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide)
  • Leukeran (chlorambucil)

The following non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be given for joint pain and blood thinning, if needed:

  • Aspirin
  • Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Naprosyn (naproxen)
  • Motrin (ibuprofen)
  • Indocin (indomethacin)
  • Celebrex (celecoxib)
  • Relafen (nabumetone)

Corticosteroids, man-made medications similar to the hormone cortisol, are given to calm inflammation, and how they are given depends on what symptoms are beign treated. For skin rashes, corticosteroids may be given in the form of creams. For inflammation throughout the body, these drugs may be injected into muscles or taken in oral form.

Lupkynis (voclosporin) is FDA-approved for treating the kidney inflammation that can accompany SLE. It works by preventing a type of white blood cell, the T cell, from causing inflammation that damages the kidneys.

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