Lupus is a chronic disease of the body’s autoimmune system. The immune system makes antibodies that normally protect us against bacteria and viruses. An autoimmune disease, like lupus, causes those antibodies to attack the body’s own cells and tissues, resulting in inflammation and tissue damage.

The most common and serious type of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Another type is cutaneous lupus erythematosus, or discoid lupus, which affects only the skin and does not cause damage to other organs.

What are the most common symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus?

Symptoms of SLE may come and go. Medications can help manage the symptoms, but there is currently no cure. Because the symptoms of SLE are similar to those of other diseases, it is not always easy to diagnose.

The most common early symptoms include:

  • Malar rash, a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks, as well as reddish or purplish rashes on other parts of the body
  • Joint and muscle pain, particularly in the hands, wrists and knees
  • Fatigue, sometimes with a low-grade fever
  • Light sensitivity
  • Swollen glands

Though these symptoms can occur in other diseases, the combination of these systems is what distinguishes SLE from other conditions.

Who is most at risk for SLE?

The disease most frequently strikes women of childbearing age, from the late teens to age 40. Men can also get SLE, but women have the disease 10 times more often. Genetics may play a role. African-American, Latina, Asian, and Native American women are more often affected than Caucasian women. Although less common, SLE can start during childhood.

Why do some patients with SLE need a kidney transplant?

In later stages SLE can cause damage to vital organs, most commonly the kidneys, heart and lungs. The kidneys filter toxins from the body, and over time may be overwhelmed by the damaging effects of inflammation due to SLE. Fortunately, newer therapies have made this complication less common.

More than half of people with SLE develop kidney damage, and in children with SLE, this number is higher. Over time, dialysis or a transplant may be needed.  Better long-term results are seen with a kidney transplant, and patients usually do quite well after a transplant.

It is important to note that each person with SLE is unique and may experience different disease symptoms and severity.

Does SLE cause other serious complications?

Patients with SLE have a higher risk for heart attack or stroke. Cardiovascular disease is the most common reason for deaths related to SLE. It can also cause blood problems such as anemia and bleeding and clotting disorders.

Lung problems are also common with SLE, and can lead to difficulty breathing. Other systems in the body can also be affected, including the brain, circulatory and digestive systems.

How is lupus treated?

Treatment for symptoms and complications of SLE involves a team of specialists, which may include a rheumatologist, nephrologist, cardiologist, and pulmonologist, among others. People with SLE can have a normal life expectancy with careful, consistent monitoring, testing and treatment of the complications of the disease.

What is the best way to live with SLE?

A healthy lifestyle often helps lessen severity of symptoms. Maintain a healthful diet and weight, get regular exercise, and get enough sleep. For someone with SLE, more than eight hours each night is usually necessary.

Do not smoke or drink alcohol, minimize sun exposure and use sunscreen, and try to keep stress to a minimum. Yoga and meditation help greatly with stress management and sense of well-being. Most important, make sure you keep regular appointments with your physicians!

Ali Yalcindag, MD

Dr. Ali Yalcindag is a pediatric rheumatologist at Hasbro Children’s Hospital