Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Rhianna McClymont

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Lupus is an autoimmune condition that causes extreme tiredness, joint pain and skin rashes. We explain what causes it and how to improve symptoms.

What is lupus?

Lupus is a chronic (lifelong) condition where you get extreme tiredness, joint pain and skin rashes. It’s an autoimmune condition, which means that your immune system attacks your body’s healthy tissues and organs, causing inflammation and tissue damage.

What causes lupus?

Lupus is caused by your immune system attacking healthy parts of your body. Scientists don’t know exactly why this happens. It’s thought that genetics may play a role, and environmental factors, like:

  • Exposure to the sun

  • Having a viral infection

  • Taking certain medication

  • Life stages like puberty and menopause

  • Childbirth

It affects women more than men. Other factors, like ethnicity and family history of lupus, can also increase your chances of developing the condition.

Lupus symptoms

The most common symptoms of lupus are:

  • Rashes – Often, these appear as butterfly-shaped rashes on the face, across the bridge of your nose and your cheeks. Rashes can also appear on other parts of the body

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Stiff and painful muscles and joints

If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to a doctor as soon as possible.

Other signs of lupus can include:

  • Headaches

  • High temperature and fever

  • Mouth sores

  • Being sensitive to sun exposure – This can cause skin lesions and rashes

  • Hair loss

  • Lupus can vary in its severity. If it’s mild, it generally causes tiredness and skin and joint problems. In moderate to severe cases, it can cause inflammation and damage to organs like the heart, lungs and kidneys.

It often flares up for a short time, and symptoms worsen before calming down and going into remission. But this isn’t always the case, and some people constantly experience symptoms.

How is lupus diagnosed?

It can be difficult to diagnose lupus because the signs and symptoms are similar to other conditions like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

If the doctor thinks you have lupus, they will ask you about your symptoms and take blood tests to look for high levels of a particular antibody that indicates lupus.

The doctor may also X-ray or scan your body because lupus can cause inflammation of the lungs, heart, liver, joints and kidneys.

Lupus treatment

A range of medication can help treat the symptoms of lupus. These include:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – Like ibuprofen, to treat inflammation and pain in your joints

  • Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) – To reduce pain, swelling and joint stiffness and improve rashes

  • Steroids – These can be taken as tablets, injections or creams to reduce rashes and treat kidney inflammation

  • Antimalarials – Can be used to treat fatigue and joint pain, as well as rashes if used alongside steroid cream

  • Biological therapies – These are newer versions of DMARDs and can be effective at targeting specific cells in your immune system

Self-care for lupus

If you’re diagnosed with lupus, there are lots of simple changes you can make to your daily life to help improve your symptoms. For example:

  • Cover up in the sun – Wear a sunhat and use high-factor (SPF 50+) sunscreen, which your doctor can prescribe if you have lupus

  • Pace yourself – It’s essential to avoid getting overtired, but being active is beneficial too, so factor in gentle activity wherever possible

  • Find the best ways to manage stress – Relaxation techniques, like mindfulness, breathing exercises, meditation and yoga can be helpful

  • Tell friends, family and colleagues – The more they understand about your condition, the more support they can offer

  • Eat healthily – Follow a balanced diet, and make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D and calcium – talk to your doctor if you think you need supplements

  • Stop smoking – If you’re a smoker, giving up smoking is one of the most effective things you can do to help yourself

  • Find self-help and support groups – These can be a positive way to deal with your emotions by talking to others in a similar situation and sharing your own experiences with them

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Lead GP at Livi Dr Rhianna McClymont
Dr Rhianna McClymont, Lead GP at Livi