Conditions InDepth: Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that affects tissue throughout the body. It causes inflammation and pain in the affected tissue that can lead to symptoms like fatigue, arthritis, skin rashes and fever. Over time, the inflammation can cause tissue and organ damage, leading to serious health complications. The sooner SLE is detected and treated, the better it can be managed.

SLE symptoms occur in cycles of remission with no symptoms and flare ups where symptoms are more severe. The exact symptoms and degree of severity can vary significantly between people. Some may have mild symptoms over a short period of time while others may have more severe forms that last many years.

There are several types of lupus based on areas of the body that are affected. SLE is the most common type of lupus that affects tissue throughout the body. Other types of lupus include:

  • Discoid lupus erythematosus—affects the skin with chronic rashes, especially on the face and scalp
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus—nonscarring rashes on the skin after sun exposure
  • Drug-induced lupus—caused by medications, such as those to treat high blood pressure, thyroid disorders, or infections
  • Neonatal lupus—rare, but may be caused by immune system factors in the mother's blood

Components of the Immune System

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Causes

Antibodies are created by the immune system to help identify and attack foreign items like bacteria and viruses. With autoimmune disorders, these antibodies identify and attack healthy tissue. These antibodies are called autoantibodies. The body responds to the autoantibody attack with inflammation. Long term, this inflammation causes the growth of blood vessels in the area. The autoantibodies can then pass into the bloodstream through these new vessels and travel to other organs in the body causing damage to organs like kidneys, lungs, or heart.

Antibody

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The exact cause of autoimmune disorders like SLE is not known, but is believed to be a combination of:

  • Genetics—faulty genes may redirect immune system to attack specific healthy tissue
  • Environmental factors—may trigger gene defect and/or cause change in immune system
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References:

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). American College of Rheumatology website. Available at:
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Updated February 2013. Accessed December 30, 2014.
Lupus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at:
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Updated May 2013. Accessed December 29, 2014.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
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Updated November 24, 2014. Accessed December 29, 2014.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The Merck Manual Professional Edition website. Available at:
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Updated October 2013. Accessed December 29, 2014.
What causes lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at:
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Accessed December 29, 2014.
What is lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at:
...(Click grey area to select URL)
Accessed December 29, 2014.
Last reviewed May 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Last Updated: 12/29/2014