Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease. In this disease, the immune system of the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. It can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs.
The cause of SLE is not clearly known. It may be linked to the following factors:
SLE is more common in women than men. It may occur at any age. However, it appears most often in people between the ages of 15 and 44. The disease affects African Americans and Asians more than people from other races.
Symptoms vary from person to person, and may come and go. Everyone with SLE has joint pain and swelling at some time. Some develop arthritis. SLE often affects the joints of the fingers, hands, wrists, and knees.
Other common symptoms include:
Other symptoms depend on which part of the body is affected:
Some people have only skin symptoms. This is called discoid lupus.
To be diagnosed with lupus, you must have 4 out of 11 common signs of the disease. Nearly all people with lupus have a positive test for antinuclear antibody (ANA). However, having a positive ANA alone does not mean you have lupus.
The health care provider will do a complete physical exam. You may have a rash, arthritis, or edema in the ankles. There may be an abnormal sound called a heart friction rub or pleural friction rub. Your provider will also do a nervous system exam.
Tests used to diagnose SLE may include:
You may also have other tests to learn more about your condition. Some of these are:
There is no cure for SLE. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms. Severe symptoms that involve the heart, lungs, kidneys, and other organs often need treatment from specialists. Each person with SLE needs evaluation regarding:
Mild forms of the disease may be treated with:
Treatments for more severe SLE may include:
If you have SLE, it is also important to:
Counseling and support groups may help with the emotional issues involved with the disease.
The outcome for people with SLE has improved in recent years. Many people with SLE have mild symptoms. How well you do depends on how severe the disease is. Most people with SLE will require medicines for a long time. Nearly all will require hydroxychloroquine indefinitely.
The disease tends to be more active:
Many women with SLE can get pregnant and deliver a healthy baby. A good outcome is more likely for women who receive proper treatment and do not have serious heart or kidney problems. However, the presence of certain SLE antibodies or antiphospholipid antibodies raises the risk of miscarriage.
Some people with SLE have abnormal immune deposits in the kidney cells. This leads to a condition called lupus nephritis. People with this problem may develop kidney failure. They may need dialysis or a kidney transplant.
A kidney biopsy is done to detect the extent of damage to the kidney and to help guide treatment. If active nephritis is present, treatment with immunosuppressive medicines including high doses of corticosteroids along with either cyclophosphamide or mycophenolate are needed.
OTHER PARTS OF THE BODY
SLE can cause damage in many different parts of the body, including:
SLE AND PREGNANCY
Both SLE and some of the medicines used for SLE can harm an unborn child. Talk to your provider before you become pregnant. If you become pregnant, find a provider who is experienced with lupus and pregnancy.
Call your provider if you have symptoms of SLE. Also call if you have this disease and your symptoms get worse or a new symptom occurs.
Reviewed By: Gordon A. Starkebaum, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of Rheumatology, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Internal review and update on 03/28/19 by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.