Medibank Health Directory

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic disease in which your body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue and causes it to become swollen and painful.

Often, it is mild and quite manageable; although symptoms can vary significantly from person to person.

While there is no cure, early treatment can prevent long-term harm.

Lupus, or systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), is an autoimmune condition where your body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and attacks healthy tissue in your body. No definitive trigger or cause has been found.

Mild cases will only affect your joints and skin; while more serious occurrences will damage major organs like your kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs.

About 17,000 people in Australia have lupus, and the majority are aged between 15 and 40 when it first develops. It is common in women of childbearing age.

No two cases of lupus are the same. Some people will only experience one or two attacks, while others will have recurring flare-ups of the disease. These flare-ups are often triggered during times of stress, sun exposure, infections or pregnancy.

As well as SLE, there are three other types of lupus:

  • Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE)
  • Drug-induced lupus
  • Neonatal lupus

Symptoms of lupus

The symptoms of lupus vary from person to person. For some people, it may only affect the skin and joints; while for others, the lungs, kidneys, blood vessels or brain may be attacked.

Some of the common symptoms include:

  • Joint pain or swelling
  • Skin rashes
  • Sores in the mouth or nose
  • Anaemia
  • Hair loss
  • Fatigue and fever

Given that the early symptoms of lupus are similar to other types of arthritis – plus the fact that there is no single test to see if you have lupus – it can be difficult to diagnose. However, blood tests can help to confirm the diagnosis.

Causes of lupus

It’s not clear what causes lupus. However, there are a number of risk factors, including:

  • Being female: 90 per cent of Australians with lupus are women
  • Genetic factors: some families and some racial groups are more susceptible, and it appears to be more prevalent in indigenous Australians than in non-indigenous Australians
  • Sunlight exposure: this can be a trigger in susceptible people

Treatment of lupus

There is currently no cure for lupus.

To treat lupus, there are a range of different medicines that your doctor may prescribe. They are designed to limit your body's immune response and reduce inflammation. Your doctor may need to try different ones to see which works best for your condition. These medicines include:

  • Corticosteriods, if your kidneys or other organs are affected
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs)

Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist for further treatment

You can also make lifestyle changes to minimise the occurrence of flare-ups of your condition. In particular, you should protect yourself from the sun, stay physically active, eat well, quit smoking and try to reduce stress.

Further information and sources


This article is of a general nature only. You should always seek medical advice if you think you may have lupus.