Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)

An autoimmune disease that can affect many organ systems throughout the body, including the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, blood vessels, and brain. No one knows exactly what causes SLE (lupus), but scientists believe that genes and environmental factors such as certain viruses may play important roles in its development. Common symptoms of lupus include pain and swelling in the joints, muscle pain, fever with no known cause, red rashes (most often on the face), chest pain when taking deep breaths, hair loss, pale or purple fingers or toes, sensitivity to the sun, and extreme fatigue.

Over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen can be used to alleviate pain, swelling, and fever. Medications such as hydroxychloroquine, originally used to treat malaria, can be used to treat fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes, and inflammation of the lungs. Corticosteroids such as prednisone, hydrocortisone, methylprednisone, and dexamethasone can be used to rapidly suppress inflammation. They can be given by mouth, by injection, or by intravenous infusion, or can be applied to the skin in the form of cream.

Immunosuppressives such as cyclophosphamide and mycophenolate mofetil can be used to block the autoimmune response in people in whom lupus affects the kidneys or immune system. Part of the underlying cause of lupus may be abnormalities in cells of the immune system called B cells, and a new type of medication called belimumab treats lupus by reducing the number of abnormal B cells.

Want to learn more about managing lupus? Read “Women With Lupus Can Fight Smart” and “How Moms Learn to Live With Lupus.”

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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