Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Systemic lupus erythematosus, also commonly called SLE or simply lupus, is a disease that causes chronic inflammation of connective tissues throughout the body.

While the term “lupus” often refers specifically to SLE, there are also other types of lupus.

SLE affects tissue throughout the entire body, while the other forms of lupus are more rare and primarily affect the skin.

This article is a great resource to learn the basics on the lupus disease and what it could mean for your health.

What is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

what is lupus_malar rash

Malar rash in systemic lupus - Image Credit: Doktorinternet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a type of autoimmune disorder in which the body’s own immune system attacks healthy tissues.

The tissues the immune system attacks become damaged and inflamed, leading to chronic pain and dysfunction of the tissues.

SLE primarily affects connective tissues.

Unfortunately, the connective tissues SLE affect are present in almost every part of your body.

Your skin, the lining of your blood vessels, your joints, kidneys, heart, lungs, and many other important organs can all be affected by the inflammation that SLE causes, making this disease particularly challenging to live with.

What Causes Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Like many autoimmune diseases, the cause of SLE is not well understood.

It is thought that SLE is the result of a combination of factors that includes genetics, environment, and hormones.

SLE may be triggered by an environmental factor, such as excessive sunlight exposure, certain medications, or infections.


The symptoms of SLE are caused by inflammation and damage to connective tissues.

Connective tissues are found in almost every organ, creating widespread, systemic symptoms.

SLE symptoms also include immune system symptoms due to over-activation of the immune response.

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain and swelling
  • Skin rashes or lesions
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry eyes
  • Chest pain
  • A butterfly-shaped rash over the face
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Hair loss
  • Swelling the legs and ankles
  • Mouth sores
  • Blood clots
  • The symptoms of SLE will generally be different for everyone who has the disease, with some symptoms more prominent and some not being present.

    Fatigue is often the symptom that is most disruptive to people’s lives; however, symptoms caused by disruption in the function of important organs are the most dangerous.


    Common SLE Symptoms: By Mikael Häggström, used with permission


    Unfortunately, SLE can cause many complications if it is untreated or diagnosed late into the disease.

    As SLE causes inflammation of vital organs, it can affect their function.

    Some important complications of systemic lupus erythematosus include:

    • Scarring
    • Stroke
    • Heart attack
    • Joint deformities
    • Scarring
    • Pregnancy complications
    • Fractures
    • Eye disease
    • Thyroid problems
    • Kidney failure

    Because the complications of SLE can be dangerous in some situations, it is very important that someone with SLE begin medical treatment as soon as possible.

    Regular checkups can help detect complications that are starting before they develop into larger problems.

    Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Risk Factors

    Because the cause of SLE is not fully understood, all the potential risk factors for this disease are not known.

    Currently, the known risk factors for SLE include:

    • Female gender
    • Age 15-44
    • Family history of autoimmune disease
    • African American, Latino, Asian, or Native American heritage

    Females, especially of childbearing age, are much more likely to develop SLE, supporting the hypothesis that hormones play a role in this disease.

    Some estimates suggest that women are up to 12 times more likely to develop SLE than men.


    Diagnosing and living with SLE Lupus

    Diagnosing SLE is relatively complicated, often taking a relatively long time to arrive at a diagnosis.

    One of the reasons that SLE is so hard to diagnose is that its effects on an organ are often initially seen as a problem with that organ rather than as an underlying disease that caused the initial problem.

    Because SLE is complicated to diagnose, it is often diagnosed by a specialist called a rheumatologist.

    Physicians in this specialty diagnose and treat diseases affecting the joints and the immune system.

    A rheumatologist is often consulted once it becomes clear that the symptoms of SLE are immune-driven or once it becomes evident that there is an underlying systemic disease.

    Rheumatologists generally use specific criteria to diagnose SLE.

    The areas these criteria focus on include:

    • Skin rashes
    • Skin sensitivity to light
    • Mouth sores
    • Joint inflammation
    • Inflammation of the lining of the heart and lungs
    • Kidney problems
    • Neurological problems
    • Blood problems
    • Immune problems

    There are many different tests that rheumatologists use depending on the area they are assessing and what they are assessing for.

    Tests can include blood tests, imaging, physical examination, or exploring your history of medical problems.

    Rheumatologists will combine multiple factors together to determine if you have SLE or not.

    Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Treatments

    Because SLE can have so many different effects, the treatments for this condition vary significantly between individuals based on the complications that it causes.

    The treatment of SLE itself generally relies on medicines that suppress the immune system.

    These medicines can help minimize the effects that SLE has on the body but do carry some risks.

    Treatments for systemic lupus erythematosus include:

    Hydroxychloroquine - This medication is an immunosuppressive drug that often reduces the frequency and severity of SLR flares.

    Corticosteroids - Steroids help to suppress the immune system but can inhibit your body’s natural production of steroids. These medicines often help reduce SLE symptoms.

    Belimumab - This medicine was developed in 2011 and is used specifically to treat SLE. Belimumab works by suppressing the immune system.

    Treatments for the complications that SLE can cause are often also necessary.

    The complications of SLE typically affect specific organs, and the rheumatologist treating SLE will coordinate with other specialists who are experts in the organs or systems that SLE affects.

    The different treatment options for complications are numerous and will generally be highly specific to each individual.

    SLE should always be managed by an experienced rheumatologist who specializes in treating these types of conditions.

    A rheumatologist is not only best equipped to provide a diagnosis but will also have the skillset necessary to provide effective treatment.

    At Southwest Florida Rheumatology, we have extensive experience with helping people manage their SLE and achieve a high quality of life.

    We invite you to contact us today to start the process of getting the help you need.

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