Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Written by Jaime Herndon
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Systemic Lupus

What is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

The immune system normally fights off dangerous infections and bacteria to keep the body healthy. An autoimmune disease occurs when the immune system attacks its own body because it confuses it for something foreign. There are many autoimmune diseases, including systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

SLE is also known as discoid lupus or disseminated lupus erythematosus. Although “lupus” actually includes a number of different diseases, SLE is the most common type of lupus, and when people say “lupus,” they are often referring to SLE.

SLE is a chronic disease that can have phases of worsening symptoms that alternate with periods of mild symptoms. Luckily, most people with SLE lead a normal life.

According to the Lupus Foundation of America, at least 1.5 million Americans are living with diagnosed lupus (LFA). The Foundation believes that the number of people who actually suffer from the condition is likely much higher—and that many cases go undiagnosed.

Causes of SLE

The exact cause of SLE is not known, but several factors have been associated with the disease.

Genetics

The disease is not linked to a certain gene, but people with lupus often have family members with other autoimmune conditions.

Environment

There may be environmental triggers like ultraviolet rays, certain medications, a virus, physical or emotional stress, and trauma.

Gender and Hormones

SLE affects more women than men. Women also experience worsening of symptoms during pregnancy and with their menstrual periods. Both of these observations have led some medical professionals to believe that the female hormone estrogen may play a role in causing SLE. However, more research is still needed to prove this theory.

Recognizing Potential Symptoms of SLE

Symptoms can vary and can change over time. Common symptoms include:

  • severe fatigue
  • painful or swollen joints
  • headaches
  • rash on cheeks and nose called “butterfly” rash
  • hair loss
  • anemia
  • blood-clotting problems
  • Raynaud’s syndrome (fingers turning white/blue and tingle when cold)

Other symptoms can depend on the part of the body the disease is attacking, such as the digestive tract, the heart, or skin.

Lupus symptoms are also symptoms of many other diseases, which makes diagnosis tricky. If you have any of these symptoms, see your doctor. Your doctor can run tests to gather the information needed to make an accurate diagnosis.

How is SLE Diagnosed?

Your doctor will do a physical exam and check for typical signs of lupus. There is no one single diagnostic test, but screenings that can help your doctor come to an informed diagnosis include:

  • blood tests, such as antibody tests and a complete blood count
  • urinalysis
  • chest X-ray

Your general practitioner might refer you to a doctor called a rheumatologist. Rheumatologists specialize in treating joint and soft tissue disorders and autoimmune diseases.

Treatment for SLE

Treatment for SLE is not curative—the goal is to ease the symptoms of lupus. Treatment can vary depending on how severe your symptoms are and which parts of your body are affected, treatment can vary. Treatments may include:

  • anti-inflammatory medications for joint pain and stiffness
  • steroid creams for rashes
  • corticosteroids of varying doses to minimize the immune response
  • antimalarial drugs for skin and joint problems

Talk with your doctor about your diet and lifestyle habits. Your doctor might recommend eating or avoiding certain foods and minimizing stress to reduce the likelihood of triggering symptoms. You might need to have screenings for osteoporosis, since steroids can thin your bones. Preventative care such as immunizations and cardiac screenings may also be recommended.

Potential Long-Term Complications of SLE

Unfortunately, over time, SLE can damage or cause complications in systems throughout your body. Possible complications may include blood clots, inflammation of the heart, stroke, and lung damage. SLE can have serious negative effects on your body during pregnancy, and can lead to pregnancy complications and even miscarriage. Talk with your doctor about ways to reduce the risk of complications.

Lupus can take an emotional toll. Working with a trained counselor or support group in your area can help you reduce stress, maintain positive mental health, and manage your illness.

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