Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

Close-up of butterfly rash on a woman with lupus.

Close-up of butterfly rash on a woman with lupus.
beginning of content


5-minute read

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect many different parts of the body. If you have lupus, the body's immune system attacks its own normal cells.

There are many different types of lupus:

  • Systemic lupus erythematosus (also known as SLE) can affect almost any organ or system.
  • Discoid lupus is generally milder, with most people having only skin symptoms.
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus is similar, but milder still.
  • Drug-induced lupus is a reaction to a medicine that fades away after the medicine is stopped.

About 20,000 people in Australia and New Zealand have lupus. About 9 in 10 are women and the majority develop the condition between 15 and 45 years.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Different people have different symptoms, and one person may have different symptoms at different times. Symptoms can be vague.

Lupus can be very unpredictable. Some people have relatively few symptoms after the initial flare up, while others have periods of fairly good health (known as remission) alternating with flare-ups of disease.

The most common symptoms include:

  • pain, stiffness or swelling in joints (experienced by about one in 2 people with lupus)
  • skin rashes which can appear or become worse after exposure to the sun (experienced by about one in 5 people with lupus). A 'butterfly rash' on the cheeks and nose is common
  • fever
  • feeling tired and weak (experienced by about one in 10 people with lupus)

Other fairly common symptoms are:

  • loss of appetite and loss of weight
  • hair loss
  • muscle aches
  • feeling generally unwell
  • ulcers in the mouth
  • inflammation of the lining of the lungs (the pleura) or the sac around the heart (the pericardium), making you feel short of breath or giving you pain in the chest
  • kidney problems
  • Raynaud’s phenomenon, in which fingers and toes turn blue or white in the cold
  • depression
  • seizures
  • problems with eyesight
  • swollen glands
  • problems with tendons, causing your fingers to pull in abnormal positions
  • anaemia (a low level of haemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying protein in red blood cells)

What causes lupus?

Lupus begins when antibodies attack normal tissue, causing chronic inflammation and tissue damage. Antibodies are part of the immune system. It is not known what causes the formation of the antibodies that cause the problem. 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)
  • changes in hormones (females aged 15 to 45 are most commonly affected)
  • certain medicines and chemicals
  • infections
  • diet
  • stress
  • pregnancy
  • genetics

How is lupus diagnosed?

The diagnosis is based mainly on your doctor talking to you and examining you. They will ask you a number of questions about your symptoms and then take some blood tests. These usually include an Anti Nuclear Antibody (ANA) test, which measures whether you have antibodies to your own tissues, and a range of other tests.

But it is important to know that there is no single test that gives a diagnosis of lupus. Sometimes, the diagnosis can’t be made straight away — it may take time. This can mean ensuring you follow up with your doctor and even record symptoms as they occur. Giving a good history to your doctor is very important in making a diagnosis early so the right treatment can be discussed.

How is lupus managed?

Most people with lupus are able to manage the disease and enjoy a good quality of life with effective treatments and the decision to follow a healthy lifestyle. You will get better results if you can work closely with your doctor and specialist.

Treatment for lupus is very individual and medicines are given depending on the severity of the disease and the organs involved.

Medicine most commonly used to manage a person with lupus include:

  • non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, ibuprofen or naproxen or Cox-2 inhibitors to reduce inflammation, muscle aches and arthritis
  • medications used to treat malaria such as hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine that can also be added to reduce joint pain, skin rashes and fatigue
  • corticosteroids such as Prednisolone that are very effective at reducing inflammation and will be used in higher doses to treat more serious complications of lupus, for example when the heart, lungs or nervous system are affected
  • medications to suppress the immune system, such as methotrexate or cyclophosphamide, that are used for more severe disease usually under the supervision of a specialist doctor such as a rheumatologist as these medicines can have serious side effects

People with lupus need to take good care of their health, and maintain a healthy lifestyle. It's important to monitor and control other risk factors for ill-health such as smoking, high blood pressure, high blood fats, high blood sugars and being overweight.

The lifestyle that works best for people with lupus includes:

  • getting plenty of rest
  • avoiding and managing stress
  • regular moderate exercise (without becoming too tired)
  • working out what triggers your lupus so you can avoid it. Common triggers include being stressed, too much sun, having a cold or eating foods like alfalfa, tomatoes, potatoes or corn
  • eating a healthy diet containing all of the food groups
  • avoiding contact with people with infections
  • quitting smoking, if you smoke
  • drinking alcohol in moderation, if you drink

Other ways to manage lupus include:

  • being well informed about lupus
  • working closely with your treating doctors
  • always taking your medicines as instructed
  • joining a support group

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

Last reviewed: August 2020

Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus) — Arthritis Australia

Systemic lupus erythematosus (also called SLE or lupus) is an autoimmune condition

Read more on Arthritis Australia website

Lupus anticoagulant - Pathology Tests Explained

Explains how lupus anticoagulant test is used, when lupus anticoagulant test is used, what results of lupus anticoagulant test mean

Read more on Pathology Tests Explained website

Cerebral Lupus - Brain Foundation

Cerebral Lupus Read more at Lupus International DISCLAIMER: The information provided is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient / site visitor and his / her existing health care professionals

Read more on Brain Foundation website

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) -

Systemic lupus erythematosus, (SLE or simply lupus) is an auto-immune disease that causes pain and inflammation in the skin, joints and other parts of the body.

Read more on myDr website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus

A-Z OF SKIN Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus BACK TO A-Z SEARCH What is it? Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (CLE) is a form of lupus that predominantly affects the skin

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Lupus | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Read about Lupus, also known as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease that causes tissues in the body to become chronically inflamed.

Read more on Garvan Institute of Medical Research website

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Lupus is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that can affect many parts of the body, including the skin, joints, kidneys, blood cells, heart and lungs.

Read more on Queensland Health website

Lupus and pregnancy - Better Health Channel

Lupus can be controlled with medications, so the majority of affected women are able to have children.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

About lupus | Garvan Institute of Medical Research

Read about the risks, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of lupus and Garvan's research for better management and outcomes.

Read more on Garvan Institute of Medical Research website

ACD A-Z of Skin - Neonatal lupus erythematosus

Neonatal lupus is an autoimmune disease. It occurs when an antibody is transferred from the mother to the baby.

Read more on Australasian College of Dermatologists website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Victorian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo

Healthdirect Australia acknowledges the Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and their continuing connection to land, sea and community. We pay our respects to the Traditional Owners and to Elders both past and present.