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What is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)?

One of several types of lupus, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that causes the immune system to fight against the body itself, leading to inflammation and tissue damage in major organs throughout the body.

What is lupus?

The term lupus refers to a grouping of diseases that present in similar ways: SLE, drug-induced lupus, cutaneous lupus, and neonatal lupus. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is the most common form, comprising 70% of the population suffering from lupus. Patients with SLE typically experience major organ involvement, while that isn’t the case with cutaneous or drug-induced lupus.

Causes and risk factors for SLE

Researchers don’t yet know what causes systemic lupus erythematosus, but they believe that genetics, hormonal factors, and environmental exposures may all play a role in risk level. Family history plays a nominal role; many patients with SLE have no family history of the disease at all.

Signs and symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus

The signs and symptoms of SLE are varied and generally impact many systems throughout the body. Patients might experience rashes, fevers, fatigue pain, mouth ulcers, seizures, heart problems, kidney problems, and more. SLE flares up from time to time and then goes into a period of remission, so it’s common for people suffering from this disease to have periods of illness and periods of wellness.

How serious is SLE?

Systemic lupus erythematosus can range from minor to life-threatening depending on the complications that result from the disease. The most serious complications that can occur include inflammation in the blood vessels of the brain, kidney inflammation, and coronary artery disease, all of which can increase the risk of life-threatening conditions like heart, stroke, and kidney failure.

Diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus

Patients who think they may have SLE should schedule an appointment with their primary care provider. Usually, diagnosis is made after a careful review of symptoms, a physical exam, lab tests, and X-rays. It’s important to know that SLE can be difficult to identify (and often misdiagnosed), so consultation with a rheumatologist is usually recommended.

How is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) treated?

Because so many organs throughout the body can be affected by SLE, patients will typically work with a team of providers that includes a rheumatologist, cardiologist, pulmonologist, dermatologist, and more. The primary goal of treatment is to suppress the immune system with medication to limit the attack on the body. If the patient has SLE in addition to other diseases or diagnoses, which is common, they may need to work with additional team members to manage and treat those co-existing conditions.

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