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Lupus—The Great Imitator

Published on Jul 27, 2017

Doctors sometimes refer to lupus as The Great Imitator because it can look like so many other diseases. In addition, symptoms of lupus can come and go and new ones can appear at any time. To further complicate matters, there are many kinds of lupus. The most common type is called systemic lupus erythematosus (pronounced eh-rith-a-mah-TOE-sus), or SLE. Unfortunately, there is no single test that doctors can use to make a diagnosis. Instead, they use a number of tools and assessments starting with the most important component, the complete medical history, along with:

  • A complete physical exam.
  • Blood tests.
  • A skin biopsy (looking at your skin under a microscope).
  • A kidney biopsy (looking at tissue from your kidney under a microscope).
  • Imaging tests of various organs in the body.

A diagnosis can take months, or even years, due to the variability of symptoms over time, which makes lupus harder to identify.

What is lupus?

Lupus is called an autoimmune disease. When the immune system is working correctly, it attacks things in your body that can make you sick. But if you have lupus, your immune system attacks your own healthy cells and tissues instead of any ‘invading’ bacteria or viruses. This can lead to damage to many parts of your body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels and brain.

What are the symptoms of lupus?

Lupus has many symptoms. Some of the most common include:

  • Joint pain or swelling.
  • Muscle pain.
  • Fever when you’re not sick.
  • Various skin rashes, one of the more common of which is a red rash (called a butterfly rash) usually on the face and cheeks; the rash can get worse with sun exposure.
  • Chest pain when taking a deep breath.
  • Hair loss.
  • Pale or purple fingers or toes.
  • Sensitivity to the sun.
  • Swelling in the legs or around the eyes.
  • Mouth sores.
  • Swollen glands.
  • Feeling very tired.

Other less common symptoms include anemia (a low number of red blood cells), headaches, dizzy spells, feeling sad, confusion, and seizures.

Who gets lupus?

About 1.5 million people in the United States have a form of lupus. SLE, the most common form of lupus, can affect males and females of all ages, including children. However, women between 15 and 44 are at the greatest risk. Minorities and ethnic groups are affected more than whites. These groups include blacks/African Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, Asians, and American Indians/Alaska Natives.

How is lupus treated?

There is no cure for lupus yet and managing it can be difficult. If you are diagnosed with lupus, your doctor will work with you to:

  • Prevent flares (the times when you are having symptoms).
  • Treat flares when they happen.
  • Reduce damage to your organs and prevent problems from happening.

Treatments may include medicines to:

  • Reduce swelling and relieve pain.
  • Prevent or reduce flares.
  • Help your immune system.
  • Prevent or reduce damage to your joints.
  • Balance the hormones in your body.

What can I do?

If you think you may have symptoms of lupus, or have been diagnosed with it, there are things you can do to help manage the condition. These include:

  • Getting in tune with your body and keeping track of any new symptoms of lupus or any flares that you may have.
  • Sharing what you track with your doctor.
  • Developing a support system. This can include family, friends, or community groups. It can also be helpful to work closely with your doctor.
  • Knowing your treatment options and possible side effects, so you can work with your doctor to manage your treatment plan.

The good news is research into lupus is promising. Learn more about clinical trials for lupus.

[1] [2] [3] [4]


  • 1. American College of Rheumatology: Lupus Fast Facts. Accessed March 8, 2017.
  • 2. National Institute of Health. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases: What is Lupus? Accessed March 7, 2017.
  • 3. Lupus Foundation of America: Statistics on Lupus. Accessed March 3, 2017.
  • 4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Lupus Basic Fact Sheet. Accessed March 8, 2017.
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