What is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks your organs and tissues. Lupus can affect many body systems, including kidneys, blood cells, skin, brain, heart and lungs.

It can be challenging to diagnose because many of its symptoms can mimic other diseases. A butterfly rash on the face resembling a butterfly’s wings spreading across both cheeks is a common sign of lupus but does not occur in all patients. There is no cure, but treatments can help control symptoms.


What Causes Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Lupus is thought to be caused by a combination of genetics and environment. Some people have an inherited predisposition for Lupus, and the disease may be triggered when coming into contact with something environmental.

While the exact cause is unknown, some potential triggers include:

  • Sunlight – In susceptible people, exposure to the sun may cause lupus skin lesions or trigger an immune response.
  • Infections – infections can initiate Lupus or cause a relapse.
  • Medications – certain types of blood-pressure medication, anti-seizure medications, and antibiotics can trigger Lupus in predisposed people.

Risk Factors

  • Sex – Lupus is more common in women
  • Age – Lupus can affect all ages, but it is most commonly diagnosed between ages 15-45
  • Race – Lupus is more common in African Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans

Symptoms of Systemic Lupus

While no two cases of Lupus are precisely alike, many symptoms are most common among patients. In each case, symptoms will depend on the body systems being affected by the disease.

  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Joint pain, stiffness, and swelling
  • Butterfly-shaped facial rash (covers cheeks and bridge of the nose)
  • Skin lesions that appear or worsen with sun exposure
  • Fingers and toes that turn white or blue when exposed to cold or during stressful periods (Raynaud’s Phenomenon)
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Chest Pain
  • Dry Eyes
  • Headache, confusion, and memory loss

How is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Diagnosed?


  • CBC/Complete Blood Count – used to measure red blood cells, white blood cells, platelets and the hemoglobin in red blood cells. It can show anemia which is common in Lupus.
  • Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate – this test determines the rate at which red blood cells settle to the bottom of a tube within an hour. A faster rate may indicate a disease, such as Lupus, but the sedimentation rate isn’t specific for any one disease.
  • Kidney and liver assessment – Lupus can affect these organs, and these assessment tests will show how well your liver and kidney are functioning.
  • Urinalysis – with Lupus, a urine test may show increased protein or red blood cells in your urine; this can happen if Lupus has affected your kidneys.
  • Antinuclear Antibody (ANA) test – your immune system produces ANAs. A positive test for these antibodies indicates a stimulated immune system. This test is often positive in Lupus patients.


  • Chest X-Ray – an X-ray of your chest will look for abnormal shadows that may indicate fluid or inflammation in the lungs.
  • Echocardiogram – this test provides real-time images of your heart as it beats and can check for problems with valves and other areas of the heart.

How is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus Treated?

While there is no cure for Lupus, there are available treatments that can help improve symptoms and overall quality of life. These treatments aim to prevent flares, treat symptoms when they happen and reduce organ damage and other problems.

There are various medication options to treat Lupus; what works best for you depends on your unique symptoms and situation. Your provider will consider your specific symptoms and challenges when discussing options.

NSAIDS/Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory drugs
Antimalarial drugs


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