Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE or Lupus)

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: Catherine Burt Driver, MD
    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD

    Catherine Burt Driver, MD, is board certified in internal medicine and rheumatology by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Dr. Driver is a member of the American College of Rheumatology. She currently is in active practice in the field of rheumatology in Mission Viejo, Calif., where she is a partner in Mission Internal Medical Group.

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Quick GuideLupus Pictures Slideshow: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Lupus Pictures Slideshow: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatments

What is the treatment for systemic lupus?

There is no permanent cure for SLE. The goal of treatment is to relieve symptoms and protect organs by decreasing inflammation and/or the level of autoimmune activity in the body. The precise treatment is decided on an individual basis. Many people with mild symptoms may need no treatment or only intermittent courses of anti-inflammatory medications. Those with more serious illness involving damage to internal organ(s) may require high doses of corticosteroids in combination with other medications that suppress the body's immune system.

People with SLE need more rest during periods of active disease. Researchers have reported that poor sleep quality was a significant factor in developing fatigue in people with SLE. These reports emphasize the importance for people and physicians to address sleep quality and the effect of underlying depression, lack of exercise, and self-care coping strategies on overall health. During these periods, carefully prescribed exercise is still important to maintain muscle tone and range of motion in the joints.

To protect from sun sensitivity, sunscreens, sun avoidance, and sun protection clothing are used. Certain types of lupus rash can respond to topical cortisone medications.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are helpful in reducing inflammation and pain in muscles, joints, and other tissues. Examples of NSAIDs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Naprosyn), and sulindac (Clinoril). Since the individual response to NSAIDs varies, it is common for a doctor to try different NSAIDs to find the most effective one with the fewest side effects. The most common side effects are stomach upset, abdominal pain, ulcers, and even ulcer bleeding. NSAIDs are usually taken with food to reduce side effects. Sometimes, medications that prevent ulcers while taking NSAIDs, such as misoprostol (Cytotec), are given simultaneously.

Corticosteroids are more potent than NSAIDs in reducing inflammation and restoring function when the disease is active. Corticosteroids are particularly helpful when internal organs are affected. Corticosteroids can be given by mouth, injected directly into the joints and other tissues, or administered intravenously. Unfortunately, corticosteroids have serious side effects when given in high doses over prolonged periods, and the doctor will try to monitor the activity of the disease in order to use the lowest doses that are safe. Side effects of corticosteroids include weight gain, thinning of the bones and skin, infection, diabetes, facial puffiness, cataracts, and death (necrosis) of the tissues in large joints.

Hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) is an antimalarial medication found to be particularly effective for SLE people with fatigue, skin involvement, and joint disease. Consistently taking Plaquenil can prevent flare-ups of lupus. Side effects are uncommon but include diarrhea, upset stomach, and eye-pigment changes. Eye-pigment changes are rare but require monitoring by an ophthalmologist (eye specialist) during treatment with Plaquenil. Researchers have found that Plaquenil significantly decreased the frequency of abnormal blood clots in people with systemic lupus. Moreover, the effect seemed independent of immune suppression, implying that Plaquenil can directly act to prevent the blood clots. This fascinating study highlights an important reason for people and doctors to consider Plaquenil for long-term use, especially for those SLE people who are at some risk for blood clots in veins and arteries, such as those with phospholipid antibodies (cardiolipin antibodies, lupus anticoagulant, and false-positive venereal disease research laboratory test). This means not only that Plaquenil reduces the chance for re-flares of SLE, but it can also be beneficial in thinning the blood to prevent abnormal excessive blood clotting. Plaquenil is commonly used in combination with other treatments for lupus.

For resistant skin disease, other antimalarial drugs, such as chloroquine (Aralen) or quinacrine, are considered and can be used in combination with hydroxychloroquine. Alternative medications for skin disease include dapsone and retinoic acid (Retin-A). Retin-A is often effective for an uncommon wart-like form of lupus skin disease. For more severe skin disease, immunosuppressive medications are considered as described below.

Medications that suppress immunity (immunosuppressive medications) are also called cytotoxic drugs. They are sometimes referred to as chemotherapy because they are also used to treat cancer, generally in much higher doses than those used to treat lupus. Immunosuppressive medications are used for treating people with more severe manifestations of SLE, such as damage to internal organ(s). Examples of immunosuppressive medications include methotrexate (Rheumatrex, Trexall), azathioprine (Imuran), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan), chlorambucil (Leukeran), and cyclosporine (Sandimmune). All immunosuppressive medications can seriously depress blood-cell counts and increase risks of infection and bleeding. Immunosuppressive medications may not be taken during pregnancy or conception because of risk to the fetus. Other side effects are specific for each drug. For examples, methotrexate can cause liver toxicity, while cyclosporine can impair kidney function.

In recent years, mycophenolate mofetil (CellCept) has been used as an effective medication for lupus, particularly when it is associated with kidney disease. CellCept has been helpful in reversing active lupus kidney disease (lupus renal disease) and in maintaining remission after it is established. Its lower side-effect profile has advantage over traditional immune-suppression medications.

In SLE patients with serious brain (lupus cerebritis) or kidney disease (lupus nephritis), plasmapheresis is sometimes used to remove antibodies and other immune substances from the blood to suppress immunity. Plasmapheresis is a process of removing blood and passing the blood through a filtering machine, then returning the blood to the body with its antibodies removed. Rarely, people with SLE can develop seriously low platelet levels, thereby increasing the risk of excessive and spontaneous bleeding. Since the spleen is believed to be the major site of platelet destruction, surgical removal of the spleen is sometimes performed to improve platelet levels. Other treatments have included plasmapheresis and the use of male hormones.

Plasmapheresis has also been used to remove certain harmful proteins (cryoglobulins) that can lead to vasculitis. End-stage kidney damage from SLE requires dialysis and/or a kidney transplant.

Research is indicating benefits of rituximab (Rituxan) in treating lupus. Rituximab is an intravenously infused antibody that suppresses a particular white blood cell, the B cell, by decreasing their number in the circulation. B cells have been found to play a central role in lupus activity, and when they are suppressed, the disease tends toward remission. This may particularly helpful for people with kidney disease.

Another new B-cell-suppressing treatment is belimumab (Benlysta). Belimumab blocks the stimulation of the B cells (a B-lymphocyte stimulator or BLyS-specific inhibitor) and is used for the treatment of adults with active autoantibody-positive systemic lupus erythematosus who are receiving standard therapy. It is important to note that the efficacy of belimumab has not been evaluated in patients with severe active lupus nephritis or severe active central nervous system lupus. Belimumab has not been studied in combination with other biologic therapies or intravenous cyclophosphamide.

Is there a systemic lupus erythematosus diet?

While there is no specific lupus diet, scientists have found that low-dose diet supplementation with omega-3 fish oils could help patients with lupus by decreasing inflammation and disease activity and possibly decreasing heart-disease risk. It is generally recommended that patients with lupus eat a balanced diet that includes plant-based foods and lean sources of protein.

DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) has been helpful in reducing fatigue, improving thinking difficulties, and improving quality of life in people with SLE. Recent research indicates that DHEA diet supplementation has been shown to improve or stabilize signs and symptoms of SLE. DHEA is commonly available in health-food stores, pharmacies, and many groceries.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/9/2015

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