Lupus | Diagnosis & Treatment

How is lupus diagnosed?

You may have read that lupus is extremely difficult to diagnose, and that some patients go a long time, even years, before they know what’s wrong with them. And it’s true the symptoms of lupus can mimic many other illnesses, such as infection and cancer. But if you bring your child to a pediatric rheumatologist — the kind of doctor who knows best what this disease looks like in children — odds are that he or she can determine whether it’s lupus relatively quickly, and if treatment is needed, it can begin right away.

Since there is no single symptom or test result that points to lupus, your child’s doctor will collect a lot of information to make a diagnosis. He or she will conduct a thorough physical exam, make a list of your child’s current symptoms and talk with you about your child’s medical history and the medical history of close family members.

Your child’s doctor will also use certain lab tests to help make a diagnosis and, later, to keep tabs on how the lupus is progressing. These tests include:

  • complete blood count (CBC), which is a collection of tests measuring the size, number and maturity of different blood cells in a specific amount of blood. Two important tests include:
    • white blood cell count (WBC): This tests indicates the number of white blood cells present. Low levels may point to an active problem with the immune system, like lupus. High levels, on the other hand, may indicate an infection.
    • hematocrit : Indicates the number of red blood cells present. Anemia, or low levels of red blood cells, is often a symptom of lupus.
  • antinuclear antibody(ANA), which detects certain abnormal proteins, called antinuclear antibodies, that the immune system often makes when attacking the body’s own tissues. The presence of these antibodies is common in lupus and other autoimmune diseases. However, testing positive for ANA does not equal lupus. Positive tests are also seen in children with other conditions, and even in a handful of perfectly healthy children.
  • anti-DNA, which detects a specific antinuclear autoantibody commonly seen with lupus nephritis.
  • complement (C3 and C4), which measure blood complement levels. The complement system includes a group of proteins that are part of the immune system. Low levels of complement may indicate lupus activity, and increase the risk for infection.
  • C-reactive protein (CRP), which measures the amount of a protein made in the liver. CRP levels tend to increase when there’s an inflammatory process. CRP levels rise very quickly, and may indicate lupus activity or may reflect a new infectious process somewhere in the body.
  • erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR or sed rate), which measures how quickly red blood cells fall to the bottom of a test tube. If the cells to clump together and fall more rapidly than normal, it can signal there is inflammation in the body.

Your child’s doctor may order other lab tests or imaging tests to check for signs of lupus in specific organs. A urinalysis, for example, can help show whether lupus is affecting the kidneys, while a chest x-ray may show telltale inflammation around the heart or lungs.

Sometimes a biopsy can be helpful in making a diagnosis or evaluating the health of a specific organ or tissue. Almost any part of the body can be biopsied—in which a small sliver of tissue is removed and examined under a microscope— although in lupus it tends to be the skin or the kidneys.

The 11 criteria for lupus

Since lupus symptoms vary so widely and test results don’t always tell the full story, you may wonder how doctors are able to put the puzzle pieces together to come up with a diagnosis. Much of it depends on their past experience with patients, but they also bear in mind 11 lupus criteria laid out by the American College of Rheumatology.

Typically, at least four of the following things must be present for a doctor to diagnose lupus:

  • malar rash: a butterfly-shaped rash across cheeks and nose
  • discoid rash: raised, scaly patches on the skin
  • photosensitivity: skin rash caused by sun exposure
  • oral ulcers: small, usually painless sores in the mouth
  • arthritis: swelling and achiness in at least two joints
  • cardiopulmonary problems: inflammation around the heart and/or lungs
  • neurological problems: such as seizures and/or psychosis
  • kidney problems: such as blood in the urine
  • hematologic (blood) problems: low levels of red blood cells (anemia), white blood cells or platelets
  • positive antinuclear antibody (ANA) test
  • other positive blood tests that may indicate an autoimmune disease

It’s not unusual, though, for experienced physicians to make a diagnosis even when fewer than four criteria are present.

When to seek medical advice

If your child has symptoms such as fever, fatigue, joint stiffness and skin rashes — especially a butterfly-shaped rash across her cheeks and nose — it might mean she has lupus. You should make an appointment with your child’s pediatrician, who will then make a referral to a rheumatologist if lupus is suspected.

If your child has already been diagnosed with lupus, you should call her specialist about any sudden changes in her symptoms or the appearance of new ones. And remember that infections can potentially be more serious in children with lupus: If your child develops a fever or feels increasingly unwell, let her doctor know right away.

What are the treatment options for lupus?

A diagnosis of lupus can be very difficult for a parent to hear. But at Boston Children's Hospital, we view the diagnosis as a starting point: Having identified your child's condition, we're able to begin the process of treating your child. We will work with you and your child to bring the symptoms of lupus under control, head off complications and, ultimately, send your child into adulthood as healthy as possible.

Treating an unpredictable disease like lupus is like fighting a fire: Doctors can't know where it might spread, so they focus on what's actually “on fire”—the places in your child's body where lupus is active right now. If lupus is affecting your child's kidneys and central nervous system, for example, the treatment will be very different from what it might be if the disease is affecting your child's skin. This is why it's essential to let your child's doctor know when new symptoms appear, since they could mean another part of the body is under attack.

The medications used to treat lupus fall into two main categories. Nonimmunosuppressants tend to be milder drugs that fight inflammation or help ease discomfort, and have few side effects. Immunosuppressants are much more powerful drugs aimed at bringing the malfunctioning immune system under control. Some have significant side effects and—because they suppress the immune system — all increase the risk of infection.

Nonimmunosuppressants

  • Antimalarials: most often hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) help reduce the frequency of lupus flares. They are among the safest, most gentle drugs for lupus, yet go a long way toward preventing its life-threatening complications. Most children can expect to be on antimalarials for an indefinite period of time. A potential side effect of hydroxychloroquine is eye problems, but this can be monitored through twice-yearly visits to an ophthalmologist.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) ease symptoms like pain, swelling and stiffness, and are used mainly for kids with lupus arthritis. Among the most common NSAIDs are ibuprofen and naproxen, given in therapeutic doses (that is, higher than the over-the-counter versions). Potential side effects, like stomach problems, are monitored for, but tend to be mild.

Immunosuppressants

  • Corticosteroids—most often prednisone—aren't the same as the anabolic steroids that athletes sometimes take. These are powerful, fast-acting drugs that suppress the entire immune system. Many kids with lupus will need corticosteroids at some point. However, doctors work to phase them out as soon as possible because of their potential side effects, which can include weight gain, facial puffiness (a “cushingoid” appearance), acne, high blood pressure and reduced bone density.
  • Steroid-sparing therapies offer many of the benefits of corticosteroids, usually with fewer side effects, but may take much longer to work. You may also hear these drugs called DMARDs, for disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs. This group includes methotrexate;azathioprine (brand name Imuran); and mycophenolate mofetil, or MMF (CellCept). Side effects vary by medication, but may include liver problems and anemia.
  • Biologics are a relatively new class of steroid-sparing therapies that are based on compounds made by living cells. Instead of suppressing the entire immune system, biologics are more like smart bombs—they only target certain parts of it. Biologics used in lupus include rituximab (Rituxan), tocilizumab (Actemra) and belimumab (Benlysta). Side effects vary by medication.
  • Cytotoxins are drugs that destroy rapidly dividing cells in the overactive immune system. Cytotoxins — such as cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)—are so potent they're usually reserved for lupus patients with serious kidney disease or central nervous system problems. Side effects may include nausea and vomiting, hair loss and bladder problems.

Aside from medications, your child's doctor may also prescribe IVIg (intravenous immunoglobulin), which is a blood product made up of healthy antibodies that is delivered by IV, and can help get the immune system back on track. Much more rarely, your child may need to undergo plasmapheresis, a process that removes autoantibodies from the blood. But because it also takes away normal antibodies, it significantly weakens the immune system. That's why doctors treat only very severe lupus with plasmapheresis.

Complications of lupus require their own medications and treatment procedures, too—dialysis for serious kidney disease, for instance. Your child's doctor will discuss these with you in detail if and when any complications arise.

A final note: Medicine is essential, but it's not the sum total of your child's treatment for lupus. Many kids with lupus also require physical and occupational therapy, to increase their mobility and muscle strength and to learn ways to make day-to-day activities easier on their bodies. And because chronic illnesses like lupus can be mentally and emotionally tough to deal with, psychotherapy or counseling can be valuable in helping kids keep the positive outlook they need to beat their disease.

Alternative therapies

When your child is facing a chronic illness like lupus, it's understandable that you would want to explore all the treatment options. But despite what you may read on the Internet, or hear from friends of friends, there is no “hidden” cure for lupus. No magic herb or special diet will restore your child to perfect health.

That said, there are some things outside conventional medicine — like acupuncture or meditation — that are fairly well studied and do seem to help some people with lupus.

A few words of caution before embarking on any alternative therapies, however:

  • Talk it over with your child's doctor. It's important that whatever you have in mind won't interfere with the overall treatment plan. Also, the doctor may know other patients who have tried the therapy— and whether it helped them.
  • Don't skip prescribed treatments. Alternative therapies are meant to supplement traditional medicine, not replace it. It's vital that your child stick to her medications, or else risk letting her illness get out of control.
  • Avoid fly-by-night practitioners. For things like reiki, acupuncture and massage, always ask your doctor for a referral, if appropriate, or recommendations on how to find a qualified care provider.
  • And be prepared to pay: By and large, health insurance plans don't cover alternative therapies.

At-home remedies

Lupus is chronic, incurable and unpredictable. But it's not unbeatable. And you can fight it by helping your child make some simple lifestyle changes at home.

  • Eat a healthful diet. Make sure your child is getting plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein. And load up on Vitamin D and calcium, especially if your child is taking corticosteroids, which can weaken bones.
  • Stay active. Encourage your child to walk, swim, bicycle and simply get out and play. While she'll have to be careful not to get overtired, exercise helps keep muscles strong and joints flexible. And since all lupus patients are at greater risk for cardiovascular disease later in life, making a habit of exercising now will mean better heart health in adulthood.
  • Beware sun exposure. Because the ultraviolet rays in sunlight can trigger a flare, your child should wear plenty of sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) when she goes outside. Protective clothing like hats and long-sleeved shirts are also strongly recommended.
  • Get plenty of rest. People with lupus are prone to fatigue, so remind your child to take a break if she's feeling run-down — a brief nap can be tremendously helpful in recharging a kid's batteries. And a full night's sleep is essential.

By doing these things and becoming a full partner in your child's health care—keeping clinic appointments, alerting doctors to any new symptoms—you may end up feeling more in control of what can be a very daunting illness. The outlook for children with lupus can vary a great deal, however, depending on when the disease begins (called the onset).

  • age 15-18 (more common): In this group, pSLE tends to look and behave more like adult lupus; its severity can range from mild symptoms to life-threatening disease.
  • younger than 15 ( less common): Symptoms can be more severe in this group, and there’s a greater chance that vital organs will be affected.
  • younger than than 5 (rare):The smallest children are typically among the sickest lupus patients, largely because most also havecomplement deficiency, meaning they don’t have enough of certain blood proteins that play a key role in the immune system.

It’s important to remember that everyone with lupus responds to the disease—and the medications used to treat it—in his own unique way. You can’t predict exactly how lupus will progress in your child. But you can greatly improve your child’s odds for a healthy future by helping her understand and stick with the recommended treatments for her condition.

What is the long term outlook for children with lupus?

The outlook for children with lupus can vary a great deal, however, depending on when the disease begins (called the onset).

  • age 15-18 (more common): In this group, pSLE tends to look and behave more like adult lupus; its severity can range from mild symptoms to life-threatening disease.
  • younger than 15 ( less common): Symptoms can be more severe in this group, and there’s a greater chance that vital organs will be affected.
  • younger than than 5 (rare):The smallest children are typically among the sickest lupus patients, largely because most also havecomplement deficiency, meaning they don’t have enough of certain blood proteins that play a key role in the immune system.

It’s important to remember that everyone with lupus responds to the disease—and the medications used to treat it—in his own unique way. You can’t predict exactly how lupus will progress in your child. But you can greatly improve your child’s odds for a healthy future by helping her understand and stick with the recommended treatments for her condition.