Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

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

The term lupus has been used to identify a number of immune diseases that have similar clinical presentations and laboratory features, but SLE is the most common type of lupus. People are often referring to SLE when they say lupus.

SLE is a chronic disease that can have phases of worsening symptoms that alternate with periods of mild symptoms. Most people with SLE are able to live a normal life with treatment.

Recognizing potential symptoms of SLE

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

  • severe fatigue
  • joint pain
  • joint swelling
  • headaches
  • a rash on the cheeks and nose, which is called a “butterfly rash”
  • hair loss
  • anemia
  • blood-clotting problems
  • fingers turning white or blue and tingling when cold, which is known as Raynaud’s phenomenon

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

Causes of SLE

The exact cause of SLE isn’t known, but several factors have been associated with the disease.

Genetics

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

Environment

Environmental triggers can include:

  • ultraviolet rays
  • certain medications
  • viruses
  • physical or emotional stress
  • trauma

Sex and hormones

SLE affects women more than men. Women also may experience more severe 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.

Treatment for SLE

No cure for SLE exists. The goal of treatment is to ease symptoms. Treatment can vary depending on how severe your symptoms are and which parts of your body SLE affects. The treatments may include:

  • anti-inflammatory medications for joint pain and stiffness
  • steroid creams for rashes
  • corticosteroids to minimize the immune response
  • antimalarial drugs for skin and joint problems
  • disease modifying drugs or targeted immune system agents for more severe cases

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. Your doctor may also recommend preventive care, such as immunizations that are safe for people with autoimmune diseases and cardiac screenings,