SLE symptoms may develop slowly over months or years, or they may appear suddenly. Symptoms tend to be worse during winter months, perhaps because prolonged exposure to sunlight in the summer causes a gradual build-up of factors that trigger symptoms months later.
The most common symptom is joint pain, which occurs in about 90% of patients with SLE. Characteristics of this symptom vary widely:
It is often accompanied by swelling and redness.
It can last from hours to months.
It may be mild or severe.
It can occur in one joint, move from one to another, or flare erratically.
Pain often occurs in the morning and improves during the day, only to return later when the patient tires.
The joints most affected are fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles. (Joints in the spine and neck are not affected.)
Children may experience these symptoms as growing pains, and, in all patients, they may be the only symptoms for many years.
Fever occurs in 90% of patients with SLE and is usually caused by the inflammatory process of the disease, not by infection. It is low-grade except during an acute lupus crisis.
Three-quarters of patients with SLE have skin inflammation and skin lesions (ulcers, rashes, or other injured areas). About half of these lesions are photosensitive; that is, they are aggravated by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunlight, even from light coming through a window. (UV radiation may even trigger systemic flares in patients with SLE.)
A number of different skin conditions have been described in patients with SLE.
Discoid Lupus Erythematosus. About 20% of patients have discoid lesions. In such cases, the condition is often known as discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE). Patients with this condition may have the following skin abnormalities:
Discoid means coin-shaped, so these lesions are round and raised. They are also scaly. Untreated, the margins gradually extend outward as the center dries out and shrivels, causing severe scarring. If discoid lesions appear on the scalp, they can plug hair follicles and cause irreversible hair loss. Discoid lesions can also appear on the upper body.
Lupus, discoid -- view of lesions on the chest: This close-up picture of the neck clearly shows the typical rounded appearance of discoid lupus. The whitish appearance is caused by scaling. The two dark spots are biopsy sites and are not part of the disease.
A butterfly-shaped rash across the face may accompany this condition. This rash causes little scarring, although spidery, branching lines of swollen capillaries (the tiniest blood vessels) may appear.
Most patients with this condition have only a limited skin disorder. In only about 10% of cases does discoid lupus develop into full-blown SLE.
Subacute Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus. Subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE) can cause skin lesions on parts of the body that are exposed to sunlight. These lesions do not cause scarring.
Vasculitis. Patients with SLE sometimes develop inflammation in the blood vessels (vasculitis) that may have the following effects on the skin:
Red welts may form across large areas of the body.
Sometimes deep red bumps may appear, particularly on the leg, where they may ulcerate.
In some people, reddish-purple lesions appear on the pads of fingers and toes or near the nails of fingers and toes.
Lesions caused by vasculitis may ulcerate or blister if they erupt on mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or vagina and can be painful if they occur on the throat.
Vasulitis can attack blood vessels in almost any other organ, including the brain, the heart, and the gastrointestinal tract.
OTHER SLE SYMPTOMS
Other symptoms include:
Loss of appetite, nausea, and weight loss
Thought and concentration disturbances
Sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea
Dryness of the eyes and mouth
Brittle hair or hair loss
Hair loss or breakage may also occur in about half of patients with SLE during severe flares or after pregnancy or severe illness. In such cases, hair grows back.
Raynaud's phenomenon is a condition in which cold or stress can cause spasms in impaired blood vessels, resulting in pain in fingers and toes. It occurs as part of the inflammatory response in blood vessels, which can narrow them and reduce circulation. In extreme cases, gangrene can result.
CONDITIONS WITH SIMILAR SYMPTOMS
A number of conditions overlap with SLE:
Scleroderma: Hardening of the skin caused by overproduction of collagen
Rheumatoid arthritis: Inflammation of the lining of the joints
Sjogren syndrome: Characterized by dry eyes and dry mouth
Mixed connective tissue disorder: Similar to SLE, but milder
Myositis: Inflammation and degeneration of muscle tissues
Rosacea: Flushed face with pus-filled blisters
Seborrheic dermatitis: Sores on lips and nose
Lichen planus: Swollen rash that itches, typically on scalp, arms, legs, or in the mouth
Dermatomyositis: Bluish-red skin eruptions on face and upper body
Lyme disease: Bulls-eye rash, joint inflammation, and flu-like symptoms
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) can cause systemic complications throughout the body.
COMPLICATIONS OF THE BLOOD
Almost 85% of patients with SLE experience problems associated with abnormalities in the blood.
Anemia. About half of patients with SLE are anemic. Causes include:
Iron deficiencies resulting from excessive menstruation
Iron deficiencies from gastro-intestinal bleeding caused by some of the treatments
A specific anemia called hemolytic anemia, which destroys red blood cells
Anemia of chronic disease
Hemolytic anemia can occur with very high levels of the anticardiolipin antibody. It can be chronic or develop suddenly and be severely (acute).
Antiphospholipid Syndrome. Between 34 - 42% of patients with SLE have antiphospholipid syndrome (APS). This is a specific set of conditions related to the presence of autoantibodies called lupus anticoagulant and anticardiolipin. These autoantibodies react against fatty molecules called phospholipids, and so are called antiphospholipids. Their actions have complex effects that include causing narrowing and abnormalities of blood vessels.
Patients who have APS have a very incidence of blood clots, which most often occur in the deep veins in the legs. Blood clotting, in turn, puts patients at higher risk for stroke and pulmonary embolism (clots in the lungs).
This picture shows a red and swollen thigh and leg caused by a blood clot (thrombus) in
The effects on blood vessels have also been associated with confusion, headaches, and seizures. Leg ulcers can also develop.
Patients with APS who become pregnant have a high incidence of pregnancy loss, especially in the late term.
Not all patients with APS carry both of the autoantibodies, and they can also wax and wane and so have varying effects. APS also occurs without lupus in about half of patients with the syndrome.
Thrombocytopenia. In thrombocytopenia, antibodies attack and destroy blood platelets. In such cases, blood clotting is impaired, which causes bruising and bleeding from the skin, nose, gums, or intestines. (This condition can also occur in APS, but it is not considered to be one of the standard features of the syndrome.)
Neutropenia. Neutropenia is a drop in the number of white blood cells. Patients with SLE often neutropenia, but the condition is usually harmless unless the reductions are so severe that they leave the patient vulnerable to infections.
Acute Lupus Hemophagocyte Syndrome. A rare blood complication of SLE that occurs primarily in Asians is called acute lupus hemophagocytic syndrome. It is generally of short duration and characterized by fever and a sudden drop in blood cells and platelets.
Lymphomas. Patients with SLE and other autoimmune disorders have a greater risk for developing lymph system cancers such as Hodgkin’s disease and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL).
HEART AND CIRCULATION COMPLICATIONS
Heart disease is a primary cause of death in lupus patients. The immune response in SLE can cause chronic inflammation and other damaging effects that can cause significant injury to the arteries and tissues associated with the circulation and the heart. In addition, SLE treatments (particularly corticosteroids) affect cholesterol, weight, and other factors that can also affect the heart.
Patients with SLE, have a higher risk for developing the following conditions, which put them at risk for heart attack or stroke:
Atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the arteries
Increased stiffness in the arteries
Unhealthy cholesterol and lipid (fatty molecules) levels
High blood pressure, most likely because of kidney injury and corticosteroid treatments
Pericarditis, an inflammation of the tissue surrounding the heart
Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle itself (rare)
Abnormalities in the valves of the heart (rare)
The risk for cardiovascular disease, heart attack, and stroke is much higher than average in younger women with SLE. The risks decline as such women age.
SLE affects the lungs in about 60% of patients:
Inflammation of the membrane lining the lung (pleurisy) is the most common problem, which can cause shortness of breath and coughing.
In some cases, fluid accumulates, a condition called pleural effusion.
Inflammation of the lung tissue itself is called lupus pneumonitis. It can be caused by infections or by the SLE inflammatory process. Symptoms are the same in both cases: fever, chest pain, labored breathing, and coughing. Rarely, lupus pneumonitis becomes chronic and causes scarring in the lungs, which reduces their ability to deliver oxygen to the blood.
A very serious and rare condition called pulmonary hypertension occurs when high pressure develops as a result of damage to the blood vessels of the lungs.
KIDNEY COMPLICATIONS (LUPUS NEPHRITIS)
The kidneys are a crucial battleground in SLE because it is here that the debris left over from the immune attacks is most likely to be deposited. Also, the immune response can also attack different parts of the kidney causing damage. About 50% of patients with SLE exhibit inflammation of the kidneys (called lupus nephritis).This condition occurs in different forms and can vary from mild to severe. Poor kidney function and kidney failure may result from this damage.
Serious complications occur eventually in about 30% of patients. If kidney injury develops, it almost always occurs within 10 years of the onset of SLE, rarely after that.
CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM COMPLICATIONS
Nearly all patients with SLE report some symptoms relating to problems that occur in the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the spinal cord and the brain. CNS involvement is more likely to occur in the first year, usually during flare-ups in other organs.
Symptoms vary widely and overlap with psychiatric or neurologic disorders. They may also be caused by of some medications used for SLE. Central nervous system symptoms are usually mild, but there is little effective treatment available for them. CNS symptoms get worse as the disease progresses.
The most serious CNS disorder is inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain (vasculitis), which occurs in 10% of patients with SLE. Fever, seizures, psychosis, and even coma can occur. Other CNS side effects include:
Emotional disorders (anxiety, depression)
Mild impairment of concentration and memory
Migraine and tension headaches
Problems with the reflex systems, sensation, vision, hearing, and motor control
Infections are a common complication and a major cause of death in all stages of SLE. The immune system is indeed overactive in SLE, but it is also abnormal and reduces the ability to fight infections. Patients are not only prone to the ordinary streptococcal and staphylococcal infections, but they are also susceptible to fungal and parasitic infections (called opportunistic infections), which are common in people with weakened immune systems. They also face an increased risk for urinary tract, herpes, salmonella, and yeast infections. Corticosteroid and immunosuppressants, treatments used for SLE, also increase the risk for infections, thereby compounding the problem.
About 45% of patients with SLE suffer gastrointestinal problems, including nausea, weight loss, mild abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Severe inflammation of the intestinal tract occurs in less than 5% of patients and causes acute cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and, rarely, intestinal perforation, which can be life-threatening. Fluid retention and swelling can cause intestinal obstruction, which is much less serious but causes the same type of severe pain. Inflammation of the pancreas can be caused by the disease and by corticosteroid therapy.
JOINT, MUSCLE, AND BONE COMPLICATIONS
Arthritis caused by SLE almost never leads to destruction or deformity of joints. The inflammatory process can, however, damage muscles and cause weakness. Patients with SLE also commonly experience reductions in bone mass density (osteoporosis) and have a higher risk for fractures, whether or not they are taking corticosteroids (which can increase the risk for osteoporosis). Women who have SLE should have regular bone mineral density scans to monitor bone health.
Inflamed blood vessels in the eye can reduce blood supply to the retina, resulting in degeneration of nerve cells and a risk of hemorrhage in the retina. The most common symptoms are cotton-wool-like spots on the retina. In about 5% of patients sudden temporary blindness may occur.
In one study, 40% of patients with SLE quit work within 4 years of diagnosis, and many had to modify their work conditions. Significant factors that predicted job loss included high physical demands from the work itself, a more severe condition at the time of diagnosis, and lower educational levels. People with lower income jobs were at particular risk for leaving them.
PREGNANCY AND SYSTEMIC LUPUS ERYTHEMATOSUS
Women with lupus who conceive face high-risk pregnancies that increase the risks for themselves and their babies. It is important for women to understand the potential complications and plan accordingly. The most important advice is to avoid becoming pregnant when lupus is active.
Research suggests that the following factors predict a successful pregnancy:
Disease state at time of conception. Doctors strongly recommend that women wait to conceive until their disease state has been inactive for at least 6 months.
Kidney (renal) function. Women should make sure that their kidney function is evaluated prior to conception. Poor kidney function can worsen high blood pressure and cause excess protein in the urine. These complications increase the risk for preeclampsia and miscarriage.
Lupus-related antibodies. Antiphospholipid and anticardiolipin antibodies can increase the risks for preeclampsia, miscarriage, and stillbirths. Anti-SSA and anti-SSB antibodies can increase the risk for neonatal lupus erythematosus, a condition that can cause skin rash and liver and heart damage to the newborn baby. Levels of these antibodies should be tested at the start of pregnancy. Certain medications (aspirin, heparin) and tests (fetal heart monitoring) may be needed to ensure a safe pregnancy.
Medication use during pregnancy. Women with active disease may need to take low-dose corticosteroids, but women with inactive disease should avoid these drugs. Steroids appear to pose a low risk for birth defects, but can increase a pregnant woman’s risks for gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, infection, and osteoporosis. For patients who need immunosuppressive therapy, azathioprine (Imuran) is an option. Methotrexate (Rheumatrex) and cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan) should not be taken during pregnancy.
Women with lupus are 20 times more likely to die during pregnancy than women without the disease. The risk for maternal death is due to the following serious conditions that can develop during pregnancy:
Miscarriages. About 25% of lupus pregnancies result in miscarriage. The risk is highest for patients with antiphospholipid antibodies, active kidney disease, or high blood pressure.
Blood clots. Women with lupus have a 6 times greater risk for developing deep vein thrombosis (blood clots) than women without the disease.
Clotting complications. Low blood platelet count and anemia are also risks. Women with lupus are 3 times more likely to need a transfusion during pregnancy than women without lupus.
Infections. Blood infections (sepsis), pneumonia, and urinary tract infections are more common in pregnant women with lupus.
Preeclampsia. Women with lupus are three times more likely than healthy women to develop preeclampsia (pregnancy-related high blood pressure), which can be potentially life threatening.
Birth Complications. Women with SLE have an increased risk of having a pre-term birth, stillbirth, or Caesarean section.
Despite these obstacles, many women with lupus have healthy pregnancies and deliver healthy babies. To increase the odds of a successful pregnancy, it is important for women to plan carefully before becoming pregnant. Be sure to find knowledgeable doctors with whom you can communicate and trust. Pregnant women with lupus should try to assemble an interdisciplinary health care team that includes a rheumatologist, high-risk obstetrician, and (for patients with kidney disease) a nephrologist.