How Lupus Affects Your Body

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on December 01, 2022
4 min read

Lupus can affect just about any part of your body, but medicine can help prevent and ease problems. There are also steps you can take on your own to avoid the effects of lupus on your heart, skin, kidneys, eyes, and other areas.

Lupus raises your chances of heart disease and stroke. This is probably due to the long-term inflammation that comes with lupus. Some lupus medicines, such as steroids, may also increase the risk.

Lupus causes inflammation of the heart or the sac that surrounds it. This can cause sharp pain in the chest.

Lupus also may inflame the outside lining of your lungs. Pain often gets worse with deep breaths. This is called pleurisy. Sometimes, the lungs can develop scarring from the inflammation and cause shortness of breath.

What you can do:

Avoid smoking.Smoking makes lung infections and heart disease much more likely. It also slows your blood flow and raises your blood pressure.

Get regular exercise. It helps make your heart and lungs stronger. If you want activities that are easy on your joints, try walking, swimming, low-impact aerobics, yoga, Pilates, or using an elliptical machine.

Eat healthy. To keep your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control, fill up on fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Eat baked or broiled fatty fish like salmon twice a week. It's rich in heart-healthy omega-3 oil. Avoid fast foods and fried foods.

Get up to date on vaccinations. Don't forget to get flu and pneumonia vaccines.

You may become sensitive to the ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight, which can cause many skin changes. A common skin problem you might develop is a butterfly-shaped rash on your nose and cheeks. Red, scaly bumps or patches can develop on your body. Coin-like patches called discoid lesions can appear on your body or scalp.

You may also have skin trouble in other areas, such as:

  • Mouth or nose sores (ulcers)
  • Hair loss (but not baldness), called alopecia
  • White or blue fingers and toes in response to cold, known as Raynaud's phenomenon

What you can do:

Protect your skin from the sun. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 or higher, and avoid the sun in the middle of the day. Wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing in the sun.

Be gentle on your hair. Use a baby shampoo and conditioner. Avoid harsh chemicals on your hair.

Wear mittens and thick socks when it's cold. If you have lupus, Raynaud's is usually related to being in the cold. So do what you can to keep your hands warm.

Lupus can inflame the kidneys, causing permanent damage. This can lead to swelling in the legs and high blood pressure. Your doctor will look for protein or blood cells in your urine, which are signs of kidney damage. Sometimes, lupus can lead to kidney failure and require dialysis.

What you can do:

Tell your doctor if you have symptoms of kidney problems, such as swelling in your ankle or lower leg, foamy urine, or blood in your urine.

Keep up with checkups with your lupus doctor, or rheumatologist, who will do blood tests to make sure your kidneys are working well.

Lupus can affect your brain and the nerves in your spinal cord in several ways. If it does, you may have:

  • Clouded thinking, confusion, or memory loss
  • Headaches
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Seizures
  • Rarely, strokes

What you can do:

Ease stress. Try yoga or tai chi to reduce stress and relax muscles.

Use reminders. Pillboxes, Post-its, your cell phone voice recorder, labels, and other aids can help you remember and organize.

Get help. Build a strong support network. Consider cognitive therapy to manage thinking issues, or counseling if you are anxious or depressed. Lupus medicine may help memory and thinking.

The most common eye problem is dryness or a gritty feeling. Rarely, blood vessel changes in the retina can weaken your vision. Lupus can also damage nerves in the muscles that control your eye movements.

What you can do:

Use artificial teardrops for dry eyes.

Joint pain, swelling, and stiffness are common problems with lupus, especially in hands, wrists, and feet. The swelling doesn't damage your joints, but it can be painful. Lupus can also affect your muscles and cause weakness.

What you can do:

Take anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen or naproxen.

Try a warm shower or bath, a heating pad, or cold packs to ease pain and stiffness.

Avoid high-intensity exercises when you have joint pain, but try to stay active with walking or yoga.