What Is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)?

78405917Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common type of lupus, and is therefore often referred to simply as “lupus.” It is an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system attacks the body as if it were a foreign object. The Lupus Foundation of America estimates that 1.5 million Americans have diagnosed SLE, with additional undiagnosed cases.

Causes of SLE

There is no known cause of SLE. However, there are certain factors that can make you more susceptible:

  • Genetics—If a family member has SLE or another autoimmune disease, you are more prone to having it as well.
  • Environment—Certain environmental factors may contribute to SLE, including ultraviolet rays, a virus, certain medications, trauma and physical or emotional stress.
  • Gender and Hormones—SLE affects women more than men, and women’s symptoms often get worse during pregnancy and menstruation.

Symptoms of SLE

There are many symptoms associated with SLE, which vary depending on the person. Common symptoms are:

  • severe fatigue
  • headaches
  • painful or swollen joints
  • hair loss
  • anemia
  • rash on cheeks and nose (“butterfly” rash)
  • Raynaud’s syndrome
  • blood-clotting problems

SLE can cause complications to other parts of the body as well, including the heart, kidney and brain.

Diagnosing SLE

There is no specific test for lupus, but certain screenings can help your doctor determine whether you have it, including blood tests, urinalysis and a chest x-ray. Your doctor may also refer you to a rheumatologist, who specializes in autoimmune diseases and joint and soft tissue disorders.

Treatment for SLE

There is no cure for SLE, but treatment can ease the symptoms. The treatment largely depends on which part of your body is being affected, but can include:

  • anti-inflammatory medications to reduce stiffness and lessen joint pain
  • steroid creams for rashes
  • corticosteroids to minimize immune system response
  • antimalarial drugs for problems with skin and joints

Long-Term Complications of SLE

Since there is no cure for SLE, some individuals with the condition develop long-term complications. These can include blood clots, stroke, heart inflammation and lung damage. It can also cause complications during pregnancy, including miscarriage. Your doctor can help you reduce the risk of such complications.

Systemic lupus erythematosus is a chronic health condition, but it often isn’t a death sentence. Many with SLE are able to lead full—albeit measured—lives and enjoy decades with loved ones.

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