Healthy living

Lupus: difficult to diagnose

World Lupus Day World Lupus Day

Named after the Latin for ‘wolf’ because the severe rash that can characterise it was thought to resemble its bite, Lupus is the disease that nobody quite gets.

These days, the rash is not always the predominant symptom. But the condition still remains a mystery to many, even in the medical profession.

Lupus is an incurable and ongoing immune system disease that affects five in 10,000 people in the UK and five million worldwide.

It can damage any part of the body, causing inflammation, pain and even organ failure. But its wide-ranging and varying symptoms can lead many GPs to wrongly diagnose more common complaints.

That’s why World Lupus Day (May 10) is important: until there is greater awareness of the illness millions of people could go undiagnosed, their lives blighted or even cut short as a result.

As charity Lupus UK points out: “There's far more undiagnosed Lupus out there being 'put up with' and we have to increase awareness hugely if these people are to be diagnosed and then get some quality back into their lives.

“Lupus can produce many symptoms and family doctors often fail to recognise it. Meanwhile, a number of major organs can be damaged in an irreversible way.”

So what are the symptoms of the illness, what causes it and what can sufferers do to get help?

In a healthy body the immune system produces antibodies that fight off ‘foreign invaders’, such as the flu virus. But with an autoimmune illness such as Lupus, the immune system cannot differentiate between foreign invaders and healthy tissue – so that healthy tissue is itself attacked and destroyed.

Capable of affecting virtually any part of the body, including the skin, heart, lungs, kidneys and brain, Lupus tends to attack women more than men, although children and males can get it too.

Worldwide it's acknowledged as being more common than leukaemia, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis, conditions that share a number of similar symptoms.

Chief among those symptoms are joint and muscle pain and an extreme tiredness that won’t go away. The problem is that there is a catalogue of other symptoms, too, and these can vary greatly between sufferers. For some, the severity can be life threatening, while for others the condition is mild.

Among these symptoms are:

  • Joint/muscle pains
  • Permanent rash over cheeks and nose
  • Extreme fatigue and weakness
  • Increased risk of miscarriage
  • Rashes from sunlight
  • Flu-like symptoms and/or night sweats
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Chest and/or abdominal pain
  • Seizures, mental illness or other cerebral problems
  • Headaches, migraine
  • Kidney problems
  • Oral/nasal ulcers
  • Hair loss
  • Depression
  • Haematological disorders, including anaemia
  • Swollen glands
  • Raynauds (poor blood circulation causing the tips of fingers and toes to turn white)

As for what causes it, little is currently known but there are believed to be certain key triggers. These include viral infections, certain strong medications, hormonal changes caused by childbirth, puberty or menopause, and sunlight and trauma. Often a family history of Lupus and/or other immune system illnesses such as arthritis, MS and rheumatism are present.

Although the range of symptoms can make diagnosis difficult there are certain blood tests that can help to pinpoint the condition, used in conjunction with a thorough medical history.

As for treatments, while there is no cure, both careful monitoring and adapted medication can keep the condition under control and allow most patients to live a normal life span.

Medication includes anti-inflammatory drugs, anti-malarials for patients with skin and joint problems, steroids and immuno-suppressants.

Sufferers are also advised to protect themselves from sunlight, which can worsen symptoms such as rashes.

Julian Lennon, a lupus campaigner since a childhood friend succumbed to the disease in 2009, said: “We can all do our part and make people more aware of lupus, which affects a staggering number of people.

"The fact that lupus impacts so many people in so many ways is devastating. I urge everyone to learn more about this chronic disease and band together to spread the word to others during World Lupus Day and beyond."

For more information see Lupus UK

This article was published on Thu 10 May 2012

Image © Andrey Ushakov -

Use this story

Link to this page
Printer friendly version

Share this page