Systemic lupus erythematosus

Author: Hon A/Prof Amanda Oakley, Dermatologist, Hamilton, New Zealand, February 2015.

What is systemic lupus erythematosus?

Lupus erythematosus (LE) is a group of diverse persistent autoimmune inflammatory diseases. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) affects several organs (such as skin, joints and kidneys) and blood tests reveal circulating autoantibodies. The clinical features of SLE are highly variable and may overlap with other diseases and conditions. Skin involvement or cutaneous lupus (CLE) affects 80% of patients with SLE.

What causes systemic lupus erythematosus?

Factors leading to SLE include:

The manifestations of SLE are due to loss of regulation of the patient's immune system.

Who gets systemic lupus erythematosus?

SLE can affect males and females of any age. Every year about 2–7 new cases are diagnosed in a population of 100,000 people. SLE is much more common in females than males, and onset is most often between the ages of 15 and 45 years.

SLE is more prevalent and more severe in smokers. Smoking also reduces the effectiveness of antimalarials and other therapies.

Autoantibodies can be present in people that have no manifestation of the disease.

Cutaneous features of SLE

About 80% of patients with SLE have skin involvement (cutaneous LE) and it is the first sign of SLE in about one quarter of them. It can present as LE-specific or LE-nonspecific manifestations. LE-specific lesions tend to be induced or aggravated by exposure to ultraviolet radiation and are localised in sun-exposed sites such as face, neck, V of neck and upper back.

Specific cutaneous SLE

Cutaneous lupus (CLE) has specific acute, subacute and chronic manifestations described in the table below. Typically, SLE presents with acute CLE. About half of patients with subacute CLE develop mild SLE but only 5% of patients with chronic CLE to have SLE, ie these are usually skin problems without involvement of other organs.

Features of cutaneous lupus erythematosus
Acute CLESubacute CLEChronic CLE
  • Central face malar or "butterfly" rash, resolves without scarring (may result in persistent telangiectasia)
  • Bullous lupus: a blistering rash, if severe may resemble toxic epidermal necrolysis
  • Maculopapular rash resembling morbilliform drug eruption
  • Mucosal erosions and ulcerations (lips, nose, mouth, genitals)
  • Photosensitivity: lupus rashes are mainly on sun-exposed sites. Photosensitivity can be mild to very severe with rash appearing after minimal light exposure.
  • Diffuse hair loss (nonscarring alopecia) with brittle hair shafts
  • Flat scaly patches resembling psoriasis, often in network pattern
  • Annular (ring-shaped) polycyclic (overlapping circular) lesions
  • Lesions resolve with minimal scarring
  • Affects trunk and arms
  • Flares on exposure to sun, but usually spares face and hands
  • Chronic CLE affects 25% of patients with SLE
  • Classic discoid lupus is most common: indurated hyperpigmented plaques
  • Localised (above neck in 80%) or generalised (above and below neck in 20%)
  • Hypertrophic (warty) lupus
  • Tumid lupus
  • Lupus panniculitis/profundus
  • Mucosal lupus (lips, nose, mouth, genitals)
  • Chilblain lupus
  • Discoid lupus/lichen planus overlap
  • Discoid lesions and panniculitis resolve with scarring

More images of acute SLE ...

More images of cutaneous lupus erythematosus ...

Nonspecific cutaneous SLE

Nonspecific cutaneous SLE refers to features relating to underlying illness rather than an autoimmune attack. These features may occur in other autoimmune or connective tissue diseases.

What are the systemic features of systemic lupus erythematosus?

Numerous systemic features may occur in SLE and can result in critical illness. Specific involvement of various organs is described in the table below.

General Tiredness, malaise, chronic pain, fever with flares
Joints Arthritis or synovitis causing swelling, pain and morning stiffness
Lungs Pleurisy or pleural effusions
Heart Pericarditis or pericardial effusions
Kidneys Protein, casts in urine, glomerulonephritis
Brain Seizures, psychosis, confusion
Nervous system Mononeuritis multiplex, myelitis, peripheral neuropathy
Blood Reduced numbers of red cells, white cells and platelets

How is systemic lupus erythematosus diagnosed?

SLE can be difficult to diagnose at times because of the great variety of presentations of the disease, and the presence of similar symptoms in people that do not have the disease. Several attempts have been made to help clinicians reach the diagnosis, including the American College of Rheumatology criteria for the classification of SLE (revised in 1997). In 2012, the criteria were revised by the Systemic Lupus International Collaborating Clinics (SLICC).[1]

Using the SLICC criteria, SLE is diagnosed if the patient has either of the following over time:

These criteria depend on history, clinical examination, exclusion of other causes of the symptoms, and the results of investigations—including blood tests and biopsy of affected tissue. Four of the 17 SLICC criteria relate to the skin.

Summarised criteria used in SLICC classification system*
Clinical criteriaImmunological criteria
  1. Acute or subacute cutaneous lupus
  2. Chronic cutaneous lupus
  3. Oral ulcers
  4. Nonscarring alopecia
  5. Synovitis involving 2 or more joints
  6. Serositis involving lungs or heart
  7. Renal involvement
  8. Neurological involvement
  9. Haemolytic anaemia
  10. leukopenia or lymphopaenia
  11. Thrombocytopenia
  1. Raised ANA level
  2. Raised anti-dsDNA antibody level
  3. Presence of anti-Sm
  4. Positive antiphospholipid antibody (lupus anticoagulant, false positive rapid plasma reagin, high-titre anticardiolipin antibody, positive anti–2-glycoprotein I)
  5. Low complement levels
  6. Positive direct Coombs’ test

* SLICC Systemic Lupus International Collaborating Clinics; ANA antinuclear antibody; anti-dsDNA anti–double-stranded DNA

Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus Disease Area and Severity Index (CLASI)

The Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus Disease Area and Severity Index (CLASI) was developed in an attempt to classify the severity of CLE. [2] A score of activity and damage due to the disease is calculated in each of 12 anatomical locations (refer to original published paper for details).

Total activity score is made up of:

Total damage score is made up of:

Biopsy findings

Patients with SLE often undergo skin biopsy.

Blood tests

Multiple autoantibodies are typically present in SLE, often in high titre (see immunological criteria above). Relating to skin disease in SLE:

Patients with SLE should also have renal, liver and thyroid function and markers of inflammation performed, such as C-reactive protein (CRP), immunoglobulins and rheumatoid factor.

Photoprovocation tests

Photoprovocation tests are sometimes carried out to confirm that a skin eruption is precipitated by exposure to particular wavelengths of ultraviolet or visible radiation.

Other tests

Other tests depend on which organ is affected. They may, for example, include:

What is the treatment for systemic lupus erythematosus?

Preventative measures

The following measures are important to reduce the chance of flares and organ damage.

Topical therapy

Intermittent courses of potent topical corticosteroids are important in the treatment of CLE. They should be applied accurately to the skin lesions.

The calcineurin inhibitors tacrolimus ointment and pimecrolimus cream can also be used.

Systemic therapy

Treatment of SLE depends on which are the predominant organs involved in the disease. Typically, any of the following drugs may be used alone or in combination.

CLE is also sometimes treated with:

What is the outlook for systemic lupus erythematosus?

SLE leads to chronic illness with flares and periods of remissions. In some patients, all signs of active disease resolve in time.

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