About Lupus

Breathe Easy: What to Do When Lupus Affects Your Lungs

If you have systemic lupus (SLE), you’ve probably had trouble breathing, or pain in your chest, at some point—but did you tell your doctor? It’s a mistake if you didn’t.

Your lungs, which are buried deep inside your chest with your ribs serving as a protective shield around them, can become a target of lupus. When this happens, serious problems can develop—even life-threatening ones in some cases.

Signs of trouble may include one or more of the following. Let your doctor know if one happens to you! 

  • shortness of breath—even if you’re just sitting still
  • pain in the chest area that seems to happen for no reason
  • pain in your lungs when you take a deep breath
  • coughing when there’s nothing to bring up (dry cough)
  • coughing that brings up blood
  • wheezing - the need to breathe fast for no obvious reason

Don’t ignore these signs of trouble. And if breathing gets really difficult or the pain starts to get intense, don’t waste any time. Dial 911 or go to the emergency room.

Tests such as chest x-rays, lung scans, heart ultrasounds, and the draining of a tiny bit of fluid from the lung to examine under a microscope can be done to help figure out what is going on. 

For most people with lupus, the problem is that the disease, which causes inflammation throughout the body, also inflames the lining around the lungs. Called pleurisy, this inflammation can cause sharp, stabbing chest pain. It might even come and go over time.

Inflammation of the actual lung can also happen, and is called lupus pneumonitis. When fluid builds up between the lung and the lining of the chest, it is called pleural effusion. These complicated medical names have something in common—they change the way it feels for you to breathe normally.

People with lupus are also more likely than people without the disease to develop a serious and urgent problem in which a blood clot travels to the lungs. Typically, the clot develops in the leg, where it causes warmth, swelling, pain, and redness, and then travels through the bloodstream to the lung, where it can actually stop a person’s ability to breathe. This is called a pulmonary embolism, and it can happen quite quickly, and cause lasting damage.  

So at your next visit, talk to your doctor about your personal risk for lung problems and how to spot them, and steps that you can take to keep your lungs as healthy as possible, such as exercising so that you breathe deeply and keep your lungs strong.

One of the first questions a doctor may ask is whether you smoke—because studies show that smoking may not only increase the chances of getting lupus in the first place, but also make infections in the lungs (and elsewhere in the body) more likely to develop. Smoking can also lead to dangerous heart and kidney problems and slow down the body’s ability to heal itself.

Breathe easy – Many problems caused by lupus in your lungs can be controlled or stopped if you know the danger signals and act quickly. So get to know your body, tell your doctor about any signs or symptoms that you notice, and act quickly if you notice a change in what you feel when you breathe.