SLE is a problem with the immune system. It causes swelling and pain in tissue. This can make you tired. It can also cause muscle pain, skin rashes, and fever. Over time, the swelling can cause harm to tissue and organs. This can lead to bad health problems. The sooner this problem is found and treated, the better it can be handled.

Symptoms happen in cycles. Sometimes you may have them and sometimes you may not. They also differ from person to person. Some may have mild problems over a short amount of time. Others may have problems that are worse and last many years. Harm between these times can be long lasting.

There are many types of lupus. They are based on parts of the body. SLE is the most common type. It can cause problems in all tissue in the body. Other types are:

  • Discoid lupus erythematosus—causes lasting skin rashes, such as on the face and scalp
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus—nonscarring rashes on the skin after being in the sun
  • Drug-induced lupus—caused by drugs, such as those to treat high blood pressure, thyroid problems, or infections
  • Neonatal lupus—rare, but may be caused by a problem in the mother's blood

Parts of the Immune System

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Antibodies are made by the immune system. They help find and attack problems in the body like bacteria and viruses. These antibodies can attack healthy tissue if the system isn’t working right. They are called autoantibodies. The body reacts to the attack with swelling. Over time, this causes the growth of blood vessels in that part of the body. The autoantibodies can then pass into the bloodstream through these new vessels. They can travel and harm organs such as the kidneys, lungs, or heart.


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It is not known why this happens. It is believed to be a mix of:

  • Genes—faulty ones may tell the immune system to attack healthy tissue
  • Environmental causes, such as viral infections or chemicals—may cause a gene flaw and cause changes in the system

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). American College of Rheumatology website. Available at: Updated March 2017. Accessed August 31, 2018.

Lupus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: Updated June 30, 2016. Accessed August 31, 2018.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated July 20, 2018. Accessed August 31, 2018.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated February 2018. Accessed August 31, 2018.

What causes lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at: Accessed August 31, 2018.

What is lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at: Accessed August 31, 2018.

Last reviewed May 2018 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Daniel A. Ostrovsky, MD  Last Updated: 8/29/2018