What is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (also called SLE or lupus) causes a variety of problems. It may cause skin rashes, arthritis, anemia, seizures or psychiatric illness, and often affects internal organs including the kidneys, lungs and heart. Once a disease with high mortality, SLE is now considered a chronic disease. In 1954, survival after 4 years was 50%; today it is more than 97%.

Woman tenderly holding sore middle finger



SLE is a chronic inflammatory disorder resulting from an abnormality of the immune system, which normally functions to protect the body against cancers and invading infections. In SLE, the immune system is over-active and produces too many abnormal antibodies that react with the patient’s own tissues. The exact cause of lupus is not known, but heredity, environment and hormonal changes may be involved.



The severity of joint involvement and the degree of systemic symptoms vary greatly from one individual to another. Early, accurate diagnosis and therapy may minimize years of pain and disability.

Medical treatment consists of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications. Indomethacin is most effective, while sulfasalazine may benefit those with more severe involvement. Peripheral joint arthritis may respond to methotrexate.

Health Impact


  • Prevalence of SLE is 40 to 50 per 100,000.
  • It is more common in certain ethnic groups, particularly among blacks.
  • More than 85 percent of lupus patients are women.
Forearm depicting the effects of lupus on the skin



Treatment for SLE depends on the clinical problems present and whether the disease is active or not at a given time. Earlier and more accurate diagnosis, better understanding of the immune abnormalities in SLE, and treatment studies have all contributed to improved treatment of patients with SLE.

Regular medical evaluation is important to monitor SLE. Drug treatment must be individualized for each patient, depending on the particular problems and their severity. For mild inflammation, nonsterodial anti-inflammatory medications are helpful. Corticosteroids, the single most important drugs to treat SLE, must be used judiciously. Bone protection is important when steroids are used. Anti-malarials such as hydroxychloroquine reduce SLE activity.