Body Parts That Lupus Can Affect

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that causes symptoms like a butterfly-shaped rash on your face, joint swelling, and muscle pain. Experts aren't sure what triggers this disease, but environmental and genetic factors have been linked to lupus.

Like many autoimmune diseases, lupus can cause your body to turn on itself, attacking healthy tissues. This article will describe how lupus affects the body, where symptoms develop, and who is at risk of developing this disease.

Woman looking at her skin in the mirror
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Symptoms

Autoimmune diseases can be challenging to diagnose since symptoms vary from one person to the next. Disorders like lupus occur when the immune system malfunctions and attacks the body's cells and tissues.

Lupus typically affects connective tissue, which lines your organs and supports and provides structure to other tissues and organs throughout your body. This means that symptoms can appear nearly anywhere in your body, causing different levels of discomfort or damage.

Common symptoms reported by people with lupus include:

How Does Lupus Attack?

Lupus flare-ups (when new symptoms develop or existing symptoms worsen) occur when an external factor triggers a faulty immune response in the body. When this happens, the body cannot tolerate its cells and creates antibodies to fight what it believes to be foreign substances in the body.

Effects on the Body

Lupus can impact nearly every system in your body, and each person may experience a range of symptoms. Below are some common effects on the body.

Skin

Lupus commonly affects the skin. People with lupus may develop red rashes, white bumps under the skin from calcium buildup, and sores on the mouth or genitals.

Cutaneous lupus is a form of lupus that causes skin symptoms. The three primary forms of cutaneous lupus are:

  • Chronic cutaneous lupus (also known as discoid lupus) causes round sores that appear on the face and scalp. The sores can cause scars or skin color changes.
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus causes a red, scaly rash or ring-shaped sores to develop. These sores most often appear on the neck and arms after exposure to sunlight.
  • Acute cutaneous lupus appears as a butterfly-shaped rash on the cheeks and nose. It looks like a sunburn but is a malar rash. It can also appear on other body parts like the arms and legs.

Additional skin symptoms that can develop with lupus but are not as specific to this condition include generalized rash or redness, itching, burning, and sensitivity to ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Blood

Lupus can cause problems with blood cells and blood vessels. About half of all people with lupus have antiphospholipid antibodies, a condition that can increase the risk for blood clots.

Other blood or blood vessel problems linked to lupus include:

Joints

Lupus is known to cause swelling and pain in your joints. The symptoms of lupus can mimic other disorders of the joints like rheumatoid arthritis.

Heart

Your cardiovascular system is at risk for damage from lupus because of its effects on connective tissue. Lupus is linked to an increased risk of heart disease that causes inflammation, like:

  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the myocardium, the muscular layer of the heart)
  • Endocarditis (inflammation of the endocardium, the innermost layer of the heart that lines the chambers)
  • Pericarditis (inflammation of the pericardium, the double-walled sac that surrounds the heart and the roots of the great vessels)

Kidneys

The tissues of the kidneys can become inflamed from lupus, which causes them to become less effective or to stop working. This subset of lupus is known as lupus nephritis and develops in about half of all people with lupus.

Medications that treat lupus or blood clots caused by this disorder can also impact the kidneys. Kidney damage caused by lupus can lead to problems regulating fluids and electrolytes or blood pressure.

Lungs

Lungs are surrounded by a membrane called the pleura, which can become inflamed in people with lupus. This can cause a condition called pleuritis and lead to pain with deep breathing. Lupus can also cause your lungs to become scarred and increase your risk of developing pneumonia (infection of one or both lungs) or pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the vessels leading from the heart to the lungs).

Nervous System

Your nervous system relies on the transmission of nerve signals and constant blood flow. People with lupus are at an increased risk for vascular problems and blood clots, which could lead to a stroke (lack of blood flow to the brain or a burst blood vessel in the brain) or other neurological complications. Headaches, fibromyalgia (which causes body-wide pain), and cognitive problems have also been reported by people with lupus.

Side Effects

Lupus can cause many side effects because of its widespread impact on your body. Not everyone with lupus will experience these side effects, and they can vary based on the type of lupus you have.

Lupus Rash

Rashes are commonly associated with lupus. People with lupus can develop a butterfly-shaped rash across the face or widespread redness across the body. Rashes with lupus are usually mild but can be a sign of a more serious disease and require treatment.

Vascular Disease

Vascular problems caused by inflamed blood vessels are common in people with lupus. This inflammation can lead to serious issues like atherosclerosis, blood clots, and coronary artery disease.

Organ Failure

Lupus attacks the membranes that create the lining and structure of your internal organs. When the lining is damaged or inflamed, it can cause problems in the functions of organs, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys.

Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms so that any harmful impact on your organs can be caught early. You may be able to slow or prevent organ damage that leads to more severe complications with treatment.

Risk Factors

The cause of lupus is unclear, but there is a strong genetic component to the disease. Other factors that may contribute to lupus risk include:

  • Environment (stress, sunlight, smoking)
  • Hormones (like estrogen)
  • Immune system problems

Are You at Risk?

Approximately 5 million people worldwide are affected by lupus, including 1.5 million in the United States alone. Women are at a higher risk of developing lupus than men. Women account for 90% of total cases. Lupus usually develops between the ages of 15 and 44.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If lupus runs in your family or you have been experiencing lupus symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of developing this disease.

Lupus symptoms often mimic those of other diseases, so it can be challenging to receive a diagnosis. On average, it takes about six years to get an accurate lupus diagnosis and more than half of people with lupus have had at least one misdiagnosis. You could benefit from a second opinion if symptoms persist without a diagnosis.

Once you've been diagnosed, you will need to schedule regular care with a team of healthcare providers, like a rheumatologist or another specialist. There is no cure for lupus, but your provider will monitor your symptoms and treatments to slow or prevent the progression of the disease.

Summary

Lupus comes with many symptoms, which are often hard to distinguish from those of other conditions. The skin is the most common organ affected by this disease, but lupus can impact any part of the body. Symptoms can come and go or change over time, making diagnosing this disease especially challenging. There is no cure for lupus, but once diagnosed, you can work with your healthcare provider to manage and treat your symptoms.

A Word From Verywell

Lupus is a lifelong autoimmune disorder that can affect every tissue in your body. Women are at a greater risk of developing lupus than men, and they also develop more severe forms of the disease. If lupus runs in your family or you think you may have this condition, talk to your healthcare provider. Lupus symptoms can mimic many other diseases and misdiagnosis is common, so don't be afraid to ask for a second opinion.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes lupus?

    The cause of lupus is unclear, but researchers suspect that genetics, environmental factors, and hormones may all be involved.

  • How is lupus diagnosed?

    Lupus may be diagnosed based on your symptoms and family history, but blood and tissue testing may be needed for an accurate diagnosis.

  • What are the signs of lupus?

    There are many signs of lupus, as it can impact nearly every organ and tissue type in the body. Lupus symptoms can often be confused with other diseases, and it takes an average of six years to get an accurate diagnosis of lupus.

  • What does lupus do to the body?

    Lupus causes inflammation throughout the body, resulting in organ damage, pain, swelling, and rashes.

12 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Medline Plus. Autoimmune disorders.

  3. National Cancer Institute. Connective tissue.

  4. Cedars Sinai. Connective tissue disorders.

  5. Johns Hopkins Lupus Center. How lupus affects the body.

  6. Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus and the skin.

  7. Johns Hopkins Lupus Center. How does lupus affect the cardiovascular system.

  8. Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus and the heart, lungs, and blood.

  9. Anders HJ, Saxena R, Zhao M, et al. Lupus nephritis. Nat Rev Dis Primers. January 2020;6(7). doi:10.1038/s41572-019-0141-9.

  10. Johns Hopkins Lupus Center. How lupus affects the kidneys.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lupus in women.

  12. Lupus Foundation of America. Lupus facts and statistics.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.