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9-minute read

Key facts

  • Lupus is an autoimmune illness where your immune system attacks your own normal cells.
  • It mostly affects your skin and joints, but it can affect any part of your body.
  • Stress, exposure to sunlight, infections and some medicines can trigger symptoms of lupus.
  • It can be hard to diagnose lupus because there is no single test that confirms it.
  • There is no cure for lupus, but you can manage your symptoms with a combination of medicines and a healthy lifestyle.

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune illness. This means that your immune system attacks your body’s own normal cells. Lupus can affect many different parts of your body.

There are several different types of lupus:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) — this can affect almost any organ or body system. It mostly affects your skin and joints, but sometimes it can affect your heart, lungs, kidneys or brain.
  • Discoid lupus — this is a milder illness, with most people having only skin symptoms.
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus — this is even milder and mostly causes rashes and joint pain.
  • Drug induced lupus — this is a reaction to a medicine. It fades away after you stop taking the medicine that triggered your lupus.
  • Neonatal lupus — this can occur if lupus-causing antibodies (a type of protein in your blood) transfer from the mother to the baby during pregnancy. They can cause a rash, liver, blood and sometimes heart problems. Neonatal lupus usually resolves about 6 to 12 months after birth when the antibodies degrade.

Most people with lupus have mild symptoms. About 9 in 10 are female and the majority develop the condition between 15 and 45 years of age.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Different people have different symptoms. Individuals can also experience different symptoms at different times. Symptoms can be vague. During a ‘flare’, symptoms may suddenly get worse.

Lupus can be very unpredictable. Some people have few symptoms after the initial flare. Others have periods of feeling well (known as remission) alternating with flares of disease.

Common symptoms include:

People with lupus may have different types of skin rashes. Some people have a ‘butterfly rash’, which is a red or purple rash on the cheeks. Some people have red patches on areas of skin that are exposed to the sun. The patches may look like red rings. In discoid lupus, the patches can cause scarring or a change in skin colour.

Other symptoms may include:

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes lupus?

Lupus develops if your immune system makes antibodies that attack your own normal cells. This causes inflammation, pain and damage in the parts of your body that are attacked.

It is not known what causes your immune system to make these antibodies. It is probably due to a combination of genetic, hormonal and environmental factors.

Some of the possible triggers include:

  • exposure to too much sunlight (or other UV light)
  • certain medicines and chemicals
  • infections
  • certain foods
  • stress
  • pregnancy

When should I see my doctor?

See your doctor if you have symptoms of lupus, to work out what is causing them.

If you have lupus, talk to your doctor if you are planning to become pregnant. Your doctor can help you get your symptoms under control before pregnancy. They can also check that any medicines you take are safe during pregnancy.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How is lupus diagnosed?

The diagnosis is based mainly on your doctor talking to you and examining you. They will ask you questions about your symptoms and refer you for blood tests. These usually include an anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) test, which checks whether you have antibodies to your own cells. You might also have a urine test, a chest x-ray and tests to check your heart function. Some people may need to have a biopsy.

However, there is no single test that gives a diagnosis of lupus. Sometimes, the diagnosis can’t be made straight away — it may take time.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How is lupus managed?

There is no cure for lupus, but most people are able to manage their symptoms and enjoy a good quality of life. This usually requires a combination of medicines and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Treatment for lupus is very individual and depends on the severity of your disease and the organs involved. You might need to try a few different medicines to see what works for you. Your doctor may refer you to a rheumatologist (a specialist in joint inflammation).


Medicines that can control symptoms of lupus include:

Lifestyle measures

You can help control lupus by including the following lifestyle measures:

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Avoid and manage stress.
  • Get regular moderate exercise — without becoming too tired.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Manage your alcohol
  • Protect your skin from the sun and reduce your exposure to sunlight.

Other strategies to help you live with lupus include the following:

What are the complications of lupus?

People with lupus may develop:

Resources and support

The Lupus Association of NSW offers tips for living with lupus, managing pain and diet.

If you think you may have lupus and don’t know what to do, talk to your doctor or call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 at any time to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria) for more information and advice.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2023

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