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Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): What You Need to Know

Medically reviewed by Kristina Campos, MD · General Practitioner

Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Oct 26, 2021

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE): What You Need to Know

When people talk about lupus they usually refer to the most common type, which is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

The immune system acts as your body’s protection against foreign microorganisms which may cause infections. When you have lupus, the immune system ends up attacking the tissues of your own body. This leads to tissue damage and other health issues.

A person suffering from SLE may experience bouts of serious symptoms, alternating with periods when the symptoms become mild. Most people who have this type of condition can live normal lives with treatment. According to estimates, there are around 5 million people around the world suffering from some form of lupus.

Symptoms of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

The symptoms of lupus are similar to other diseases, This may make diagnosis difficult. Symptoms may also vary over time.

The most common symptoms leading up to and during a lupus flare-up or attack include:

  • Pain and swelling in the joints of the body
  • Headaches
  • Rashes that appears on the nose and the cheeks
  • Sudden hair loss
  • Anemia
  • Problems with blood clotting
  • An intense feeling of tiredness
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Pain in the chest area

Other symptoms may manifest depending on which part of the body is being attacked by the immune system. For example, if the immune system is attacking the tissues of the digestive system, then symptoms would appear there.

People who have SLE may end up feeling very sick. They may experience fever, end up fatigued, and lose weight.


As the immune system attacks specific parts of the body, other complications of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) may manifest.

  • Once skin tissues are attacked, the patient may suffer from hair loss or sores.
  • Arthritis is another common complication for those with SLE. It may or may not cause swelling.
  • Around half of the people who get lupus develop kidney problems, which is potentially dangerous.
  • Patients with lupus usually have blood problems like having low red blood cells.
  • The heart and lungs can also develop complications because of lupus. The tissues surrounding them can become inflamed.
  • There are rare cases when the brain is affected by complications caused by lupus. This can lead to seizures.

Because the immune system covers the whole body, complications from lupus can occur in almost any organ. It is the complications of lupus that make it a dangerous condition.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of lupus is still unclear. Experts agree that something triggers the immune system to start attacking the tissues of the body, but are unsure of what the triggers are.

Although the exact causes of lupus are not yet known, doctors have identified certain risk factors. Here are some things that may make it more likely for a person to develop lupus:

  1. People who are of Asian, African, and Native American descent have a higher chance of developing this condition.
  2. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Around 90% of those diagnosed with the condition are women. Experts believe that hormones may have something to do with this.
  3. Females who are aged between 14 and 45 years old are more likely to be affected by the disease.
  4. One probable trigger of lupus is contact with certain chemicals.

While there is no evidence that genetics plays a factor in getting lupus, those with the disease often have other family members who get it as well.


Based on your symptoms, your doctor will look for other signs of the disease. Doctors will perform a physical exam. To confirm if you really have lupus, doctors can recommend several tests including:

  • Blood tests like antibody tests and complete blood count
  • Urinalysis
  • Chest X-ray
  • Antinuclear antibody (ANA) test


As of now, there is no proven cure for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). The aim of treatment is to reduce the symptoms and prevent complications. Treatments for SLE vary widely and depend on the severity of the symptoms and which parts of the body are affected.

Treatments include:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications that can reduce the pain and swelling of joints
  • Creams and ointments for treating rashes
  • Use of corticosteroids to weaken the response of the immune system
  • For skin and joint problems, antimalarial drugs can be used.
  • Disease-modifying drugs can be used for more serious cases

People with lupus might also have to change their diet and make other lifestyle changes. You may have to avoid certain foods that can trigger a lupus attack.

Key Takeaway

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a long-term disease that can cause serious complications in your body. The complications can have a serious effect on the life of a patient.

SLE has different effects on different people. For some, symptoms and complications are not as serious, but for others, they can be dangerous. If you are suffering from SLE, seek help from your doctor right away.

Learn more about General Health Knowledge here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

Kristina Campos, MD

General Practitioner

Written by Tracey Romero · Updated Oct 26, 2021

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