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Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Lupus is shorthand for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), and encompasses a collection of symptoms, in an autoimmune disease process that varies in severity. An autoimmune disease means that the body sees certain parts of its own organs as foreign and starts to attack them. In lupus, this is connective tissue, the scaffolding of every part of the body, and made up of cells, fibers, and a gel-like substance. It underpins bones, cartilage, blood, and fat.

Lupus commonly affects the skin, where rashes may develop, particularly in response to sunlight. This can cause a distinctive "butterfly rash", where the bridge of the nose and both cheeks appear very red, like the symmetrical wings of a butterfly. Other rashes can develop, and skin may be the only system to show signs of SLE.

Less commonly, and more seriously, lupus may affect the joints, kidneys, blood vessels, heart, lungs, hair, and even mental health. Affecting multiple organs is a more severe form, and flare-ups may come in episodes, lasting a few weeks or months, then clear up, only to come back again. This is harder to treat, but the symptoms of lupus can be kept at bay by medications. These work to reduce the immune response.

SLE sufferers often complain of tiredness, and this may be the reason they first present to their doctor. Joint pain, swelling, and mouth ulcers are common, too.

Is it contagious?

Lupus is not contagious to others. It is 10 times more common in women than men, and affects people of color more commonly than Caucasians. It can run in families, and it can affect pregnancies. Those with lupus are advised to visit their doctor or specialist when planning a pregnancy for further advice on supplements and continuing any current medications.

What treatments are there?

Lupus has very limited treatment options at the pharmacy aside from pain relief, and anti-inflammatories for joint-related pain. It is best to see your doctor to discuss investigations and treatments.

There are also support groups, such as The Lupus Foundation of America, which can offer additional help and support (

Am I fit for work?

Depending on your symptoms, you may be fit for work if you have lupus.

When should I see my doctor?

Lupus is a serious condition and requires care for the long term. If you suspect you have lupus, you should book an appointment with your doctor – either as routine or with urgency, depending on the severity of your symptoms. If you have joint pain or swelling, a new rash, or you have fatigue for several weeks without an obvious cause, these are all reasons to contact your doctor.

They will listen to your symptoms and examine you. They may send you for certain blood tests, and if suspicions are high that it could be lupus, they will refer you to the relevant expert, such as a dermatologist or rheumatologist.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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