Lupus is a complex, chronic inflammatory disease where the immune system attacks its own healthy cells, tissues and organs – its proper name is systemic lupus erythematosis (SLE).

A healthy immune system produces antibodies that help fight and destroy viruses, bacteria and other foreign bodies. However, in lupus, these antibodies, which are called autoantibodies, are produced and work against the body’s healthy cells and tissues, contributing to inflammation and damage to parts of the body, including organs. This autoantibody is called an antinuclear antibody (ANA) because it reacts with parts of the cell’s nucleus or command centre, and primarily affects joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs.

Lupus’s causes are not fully known, although some schools of thought believe it develops in response to a variety of factors both physical (hormones and genetics) and environmental.

What are its symptoms?

Lupus is a chronic condition characterised by flare-ups and remissions. Signs and symptoms will depend on which part of the body is most affected.

Lupus symptoms can include:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fever
  • Anaemia
  • Pain, stiffness and swelling in the joints
  • A butterfly rash that covers the cheeks and nose
  • Fingers and toes become white/blue when exposed to cold or during stressful situations
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Memory loss
  • Sensitivity to light

How is it diagnosed?

Lupus is sometimes called “the great imitator” because its symptoms may mimic other illnesses, making a lupus diagnosis something of a challenge.

A doctor who is considering the possibility of lupus will usually look for signs of inflammation, that is, pain, heat, redness, swelling and function loss in a particular area. Inflammation can occur on the skin or inside the body, for example, the heart or kidneys.

Your medical history (and that of close relatives), current symptoms and results of laboratory tests will be examined before a diagnosis is reached. While no single test can be done to determine lupus, laboratory tests can be used to detect physical changes in your body that occur with lupus.

If multiple criteria are present at the same time, your doctor will more than likely refer you to a rheumatologist for treatment.

What are your treatment options?

Lupus treatment is based on managing symptoms, as there is no cure for lupus. Lupus can be effectively treated though and most sufferers can lead a healthy life.

If lupus has resulted in damage to a particular organ, other specialists would become involved, for instance a dermatologist for skin disease, a cardiologist if the heart has been affected, a neurologist for brain and nervous system disease. If a woman patient wishes to become pregnant, she would be referred to a gynaecologist who handles high-risk scenarios.

Treatment includes:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories for joint pain and swelling.
  • Certain antimalarial drugs are used for lupus – they can treat rash, mouth sores, joint pain, and protect the skin from ultraviolet rays.
  • Corticosteroids – this medication weakens the immune response (as lupus is a result of an over-activity of the immune system), they ease joint swelling and pain, and may also be prescribed to help prevent long-term organ damage. However, discuss the side effects of this medication, including increased risk of infection with your doctor.
  • Anticoagulants – as blood clots are a life-threatening lupus symptom, blood-thinning medication may also be prescribed.

Lifestyle changes that can help you feel better include:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet
  • Stopping smoking
  • Resting when necessary
  • Exercising when you can to help sleep and mood
  • Consider the flu vaccine to protect against infection

Can it be prevented?

Because there is no known cause for lupus, there is no real way to prevent it. A treatment plan and lifestyle adaptations can, however, greatly assist with reducing the number and severity of a flare up. Keep a diary of flare-ups, identifying triggers and avoiding known culprits such as lack of sleep, sunlight and stress.

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in June 2015