Lupus and the Lung
Thomas J. Lang, MD, PhD
Assistant Professor, Division of Rheumatology, University of Maryland School of
Medicine & Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center
Lupus can affect various tissues of the lung including the pleura, which covers the lung, the
blood vessels of the lung, and the actual lung tissue. By far the most common lung manifestation
of lupus is pleuritis. Pleuritis involves the inflammation of the thin tissue-like layer which
covers the lung and lies between the lung and the inside of the chest wall. When this tissue, the
pleura, becomes inflamed, pain is produced when one breathes. This is because breathing
produces movement of the inflamed pleura relative to the wall of the chest. Typically an
individual will complain of chest pain, which is worsened when taking a deep breath. This is
called pleuritic chest pain. Pleuritis can also result in the accumulation of fluid between the lung
and the chest, and this is called a pleural effusion. When large amounts of fluid accumulate, it
can contribute to the sensation of breathlessness sometimes made worse when lying down.
Pleuritis has been described in 20 to 60% of lupus patients, making it a very common diagnosis.
Treatment depends on the severity of the symptoms. Frequently the use of a non-steroidal anti-
inflammatory is adequate to treat the pain symptoms until inflammation resolves. Occasionally
the initiation of an increased dose of corticosteroids such as prednisone is required. Rarely, if
fluid accumulation is large enough to cause shortness of breath, drainage of the fluid is required
to relieve symptoms. Pleuritis is not a life-threatening condition, but primarily results in
While pleuritis involves the tissue that covers the lungs, lupus can also affect the lung tissue
itself in a number of ways. Most of these are fairly rare. Chronic interstitial pneumonitis is
frequently without symptoms and is rarely severe. It is due to inflammation of the lung tissue
and its primary symptom is shortness of breath. Disease can be found on x-rays of the chest, or
with specific lung function tests. Though it can progress to severe disease, symptoms are
commonly mild or absent. A more severe effect of lupus on the lung is called acute lupus
pneumonitis. Individuals experience the sudden development of cough, shortness of breath,
chest pain, and fever. Its symptoms are very similar to the pneumonia caused by an infection.
Though this is a rare manifestation of lupus it can be severe and life-threatening. Because it
looks so much like an infectious pneumonia, whether an infection is present needs to be
determined before treating. If no infection is present, it is generally treated with high doses of
corticosteroids. Another rare but serious complication of lupus is acute alveolar hemorrhage.
The individual with this will develop bleeding within the air sacs of the lung, called alveoli, and
will experience sudden shortness of breath, and if the bleeding is severe enough, may cough up
blood. Though this most commonly occurs in someone already diagnosed with lupus, for nearly
20% of individuals with bleeding it is the first manifestation of lupus.
Lupus can cause pulmonary hypertension similar to the high blood pressure which is so
common, except it only involves the blood vessels in the lung. It is relatively rare in lupus.
Most patients with this also have Raynaud’s phenomenon. Individuals complain primarily of
shortness of breath. Pulmonary hypertension can be a severe problem because it can lead to
heart failure and severe shortness of breath requiring the use of oxygen. A second way in which
lupus can affect the blood vessels of the lung is the development of blood clots.
Symptomatically individuals complain of sudden onset of shortness of breath with occasional
chest pain. If these symptoms are experienced, the individual should seek immediate medical
evaluation. Blood clots are associated with the presence of lupus anti-coagulant, which is an
abnormal antibody that increases the clotting of blood. Treatment involves use of drugs such as
warfarin, which reduce the ability of blood to clot.
In conclusion, since lupus can affect the lung in many different ways, if an individual
develops chest pain or increased shortness of breath, they should be promptly evaluated by their
physician so that more serious diseases of the lung can be quickly identified and treated.
This article is reproduced with permission from Lupus Update, quarterly newsletter of the Maryland Lupus
Foundation, Volume 117, March 2003.