10 Ways Lupus Affects the Body

by Allison Tsai Editor

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect several different parts of the body. Here are some of the ways lupus can affect your health.


Heart disease is the leading cause of death among people with lupus. The most common way that lupus affects the heart is inflammation of the sac that surrounds your heart, which is called pericarditis. This can cause sharp pain in the chest and shortness of breath. While this inflammation doesn’t damage the heart’s ability to function, long-term inflammation could hinder the heart’s efficiency at pumping blood due to scar tissue.


The most common blood disorder in lupus is anemia, which affects 50 percent of people with the condition. This can mean that a person has a low red blood cell count, low hemoglobin or low hematocrit. Low hemoglobin is the primary concern, as this is the protein inside red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Fatigue, which is a common symptom of lupus, is usually an indicator of anemia.

Digestive Tract

Esophageal and digestive problems are common in people with lupus. Some of these problems are due to the medications people with lupus take, but others are directly caused by the disease. Common symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation. More serious problems, such as inflammatory bowel disease and liver complications can also occur.

Muscles and Joints

Inflammation can cause muscle pains and aches, and can also cause muscle weakness and loss of strength. However, there is a difference between muscle pain from inflammation in the body in general, and an inflammation of the skeletal muscles, which is called myositis. Arthritis can also occur, which causes pain, stiffness, swelling and tenderness in the joints.


Lupus can cause inflammation of nephrons within the kidneys, which are responsible for filtering blood. This is called lupus nephritis, and it makes the kidneys unable to properly remove waste from the blood or control the fluids in the body. This can cause swelling in the body, as well as scarring and permanent damage to the kidneys if left untreated. This develops most often within the first five years of lupus symptoms.


Lupus can also affect the brain and nervous system, causing symptoms such as headache, confusion, depression, fatigue, seizures, stroke, vision problems, mood swings and difficulty concentrating. Symptoms may come on suddenly and will vary depending on the affected area and amount of tissue damage.


About two-thirds of people with lupus will develop a skin disease. Typically, they will be rashes or sores that appear in sun-exposed areas and 40 to 70 percent of people with systemic lupus find that sun exposure worsens their disease in general. Some common lesions include disk shaped sores, red scaly lesions, or flattened areas of red skin on the face that looks like sunburn. Hair loss can also be an issue.


Canker sores are quite common in people with lupus, however, the sores tend to be larger and last longer than in the normal population. They also tend to occur on the roof of the mouth in people with lupus, rather than the inner cheeks. When a person with lupus has canker sores, it usually means there is an internal organ flare occurring in the body.


People with lupus are at an increased risk of developing osteoporosis. One reason is because of a type of medication used to treat lupus (glucocorticoid medication), which can trigger significant bone loss. Another reason is because of the pain and fatigue associated with the disease, which can lead to inactivity. Women are five times more likely to have a fracture from osteoporosis if they have lupus.


Lupus can affect the eyes, including changes to the skin around the eyelids, dry eyes, inflammation of the white outer layer of the eye, changes to the blood vessels in the retina and damage to the nerves in the muscles that control eye moment and the nerves that affect vision. In addition, some medications used to treat lupus can affect the eyes, including hydroxychloroquine.

Allison Tsai
Meet Our Writer
Allison Tsai

Allison wrote for HealthCentral as an editor and producer for Allergy, Asthma, Cold & Flu, COPD, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Skin Care, Skin Cancer, and Sleep Disorders.