Discoid Lupus Erythematosus
Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a disease in which coin-shaped (discoid) red bumps appear on the skin.
The disease called discoid lupus erythematosus only affects the skin, although similar discoid skin lesions can occur in the serious disease called systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Only about 10% of all patients with DLE will go on to develop the multi-organ disease SLE.
The tendency to develop DLE seems to run in families. Although men or women of any age can develop DLE, it occurs in women three times more frequently than in men. The typical DLE patient is a woman in her 30s.
Causes and symptoms
The cause of DLE is unknown. It is thought that DLE (like SLE) may be an autoimmune disorder. Autoimmune disorders are those that occur when cells of the immune system are misdirected against the body. Normally, immune cells work to recognize and help destroy foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. In autoimmune disorders, these cells mistakenly recognize various tissues of the body as foreign invaders, and attack and destroy these tissues. In SLE, the misdirected immune cells are antibodies. In DLE, the damaging cells are believed to be a type of white blood cell called a T lymphocyte. The injury to the skin results in inflammation and the characteristic discoid lesions.
In DLE, the characteristic skin lesion is circular and raised. The reddish rash is about 5–10 mm in diameter, with the center often somewhat scaly and lighter in color than the darker outer ring. The surface of these lesions is sometimes described as "warty." There is rarely any itching or pain associated with discoid lesions. They tend to appear on the face, ears, neck, scalp, chest, back, and arms. As DLE lesions heal, they leave thickened, scarred areas of skin. When the scalp is severely affected, there may be associated hair loss (alopecia).
People with DLE tend to be quite sensitive to the sun. They are more likely to get a sunburn, and the sun is likely to worsen their discoid lesions.
Diagnosis of DLE usually requires a skin biopsy. A small sample of a discoid lesion is removed, specially prepared, and examined under a microscope. Usually, the lesion has certain microscopic characteristics that allow it to be identified as a DLE lesion. Blood tests will not reveal the type of antibodies present in SLE, and physical examination usually does not reveal anything other than the skin lesions. If antibodies exist in the blood, or if other symptoms or physical signs are found, it is possible that the discoid lesions are a sign of SLE rather than DLE.
Treatment of DLE primarily involves the use of a variety of skin creams. Sunscreens are used for protection. Steroid creams can be applied to decrease inflammation. Occasionally, small amounts of a steroid preparation will be injected with a needle into a specific lesion. Because of their long list of side effects, steroid preparations taken by mouth are avoided. Sometimes, short-term treatment with oral steroids will be used for particularly severe DLE outbreaks. Medications used to treat the infectious disease malaria are often used to treat DLE.
Alternative treatments for DLE include eating a healthy diet, low in red meat and dairy products and high in fish containing omega-3 fatty acids. These types of fish include mackerel, sardines, and salmon. Following a healthy diet is thought to decrease inflammation. Dietary supplements believed to be helpful include vitamins B, C, E, and selenium. Vitamin A is also recommended to improve DLE lesions. Constitutional homeopathic treatment can help heal DLE as well as help prevent it developing into SLE.
For the most part, the prognosis for people with DLE is excellent. While the lesions may be cosmetically unsightly, they are not life threatening and usually do not cause a patient to change his or her lifestyle. Only about 10% of patients with DLE will go on to develop SLE.
DLE cannot be prevented. Recommendations to prevent flares of DLE in patients with the disease include avoiding exposure to sun and consistently using sunscreen.
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The American College of Rheumatology. 1800 Century Place, Suite 250, Atlanta, GA 30345. (404) 633-3777. <http://www.rheumatology.org>.
Lupus Foundation of America. 1300 Piccard Dr., Suite 200, Rockville, MD 20850. (800) 558-0121. <http://www.lupus.org>.
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Antibody—Specialized cells of the immune system that can recognize organisms invading the body (like bacteria, viruses, and fungi). The antibodies are then able to start a complex chain of events designed to kill these foreign invaders.
Autoimmune disorder—A disorder in which the body's antibodies mistake the body's own tissues for foreign invaders. The immune system then attacks and causes damage to these tissues.
Immune system—The system of specialized organs, lymph nodes, and blood cells throughout the body that work together to defend the body against foreign invaders (bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc.).