Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation of joints, tendons, skin, blood vessels and other connective tissue, and organs. SLE causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attack the body's healthy cells and tissue.
There are several forms of lupus, but SLE is the most common and most well-known.
The cause of SLE is unknown. It is likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors, such as viral infections or chemicals.
Flares of lupus can be triggered by: Ultraviolet rays from the sun or high intensity fluorescent light bulbsCertain drugsInfection or injuryPhysical or emotional stress
SLE is more common in women aged 20-45 years old. It is also more common in people of African American, Native American, and Hispanic descent.
Other factors that increase your chance of SLE include: Family historyCeliac diseaseOral contraceptives
Symptoms can be mild or very severe. For some people, only part of the body, such as skin, is affected. For others, many parts are affected. Though symptoms can be chronic, there are usually periods of remission between flare-ups.
Common symptoms may include: HeadachesExtreme fatigueSwollen and/or painful jointsFever without signs of infectionWeight lossSkin rashes over areas exposed to sunlight, especially butterfly shaped rash over the nose and cheeksMouth sores
Facial butterfly rash is a hallmark symptom of SLE.
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Other symptoms depend on the area of the body that is affected: Skin—may become sensitive to light, have hives, or red or purple rashes, or have hair lossMuscles—may become stiff and weakGastrointestinal—may cause nausea, vomiting, or abdominal painHeart and lungs—may cause trouble breathing or chest painBrain and nerves— may lead to psychiatric disorders, such as depression, seizures, and nerve pain and numbnessGlands—may cause swollen nodes or spleenBlood—may result in anemia, bleeding, or blood clots
SLE may cause complications during pregnancy. There may be a flare-up of symptoms, kidney problems, or
pre-eclampsia. There is also an increased risk of
miscarriage, or growth problems with the baby during pregnancy.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Diagnosis is based on specific diagnostic criteria related to your signs and symptoms. Your doctor will also rule out other health conditions that have symptoms similar to SLE. It may take some time to gather all the necessary information for a diagnosis.
Some tests include: Blood tests—specific tests may be positive with lupusUrine tests—to look for kidney damageSkin biopsyKidney biopsy—to diagnose type of kidney disease, if you have kidney damageMRI scan—to look for abnormalities of internal structures
SLE is not curable, but it can be managed with medications and lifestyle changes. You may also need treatment for
caused by SLE.
Talk with your doctor about the best treatment plan for you. Treatment options depend on the severity and location of your symptoms.
There are many different kinds of medications that are used to treat SLE. Examples include: Antimalarial drugs—if no major organs are involvedCorticosteroidsDrugs to suppress the immune systemNonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)—only if you have no stomach symptomsB-cell therapyAnticoagulants—in those at risk for blood clots
Your doctor may recommend that you take a combination of medications.
Some lifestyle changes can help you prevent flare-ups of SLE. Lower doses of antimalarial drugs, corticosteroids, and drugs to suppress the immune system may also be used to prevent flares. Work with your doctor to create a plan for your symptoms. Learn the signs of a flare-up and contact your doctor as soon as possibleGet immediate treatment for any cuts or infectionsManage symptoms for other chronic conditions caused by SLEAvoid sun exposureIf you smoke, learn how to quitEat a healthy dietLimit emotional stressGet enough restExercise regularly, with your doctor's permission
Chronic conditions liks SLE are best managed with strong communication between you and your healthcare team. Make sure to go to all appointments as recommended. Let your doctor know about any changes in your health or care program.
Depression in people with chronic health conditions like SLE is common, emotional support is important. Surround yourself with supportive family and friends. If you are still having problems, consider counseling or joining a support group.
There are no current guidelines to prevent SLE since the cause is not known.
Handout on health: Systemic lupus erythematosus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Lupus/default.asp. Updated February 2015. Accessed May 16, 2016.
Understanding lupus. Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at:
http://www.lupus.org/answers/topic/understanding-lupus. Accessed May 16, 2016.
Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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