Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), more commonly known as lupus, is a chronic autoimmune disease with a broad range of clinical manifestations. It is characterised by acute and chronic inflammation in various tissues of the body including the skin, joints, kidneys, brain and other organs. The symptoms can range from relatively mild to life-threatening. In some, exposure to a trigger including certain medications can cause drug-induced lupus. These symptoms usually disappear once the person has ceased taking the medication. Other possible triggers of disease flare ups include hormones, viral and bacterial infections, exposure to UV light, dietary factors, stress and pregnancy. However, for the majority of lupus sufferers the cause is unknown. There is some evidence to suggest genetics playing a role.

Signs and Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of lupus are not present all the time and vary from person to person. This makes diagnosis difficult as the symptoms can mimic other illnesses resulting in misdiagnosis.

Some of the more common signs and symptoms are:

  • Fever
  • Malar/butterfly rash across the nose and cheeks
  • Painful/swollen joints
  • Rashes that get worse upon sun exposure
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Chest pain when taking deep breaths
  • Hair loss
  • Anaemia

Some more serious effects of lupus include inflammation of the kidneys (nephritis), blood vessels (vasculitis) and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis). On rare occasions it can also effect the central nervous system causing headaches, dizziness, depression, memory problems, vision problems, seizures, stroke or changes in behaviour.

Most people with lupus will never experience all the symptoms and no two individuals seem to experience identical symptoms. However, blood tests can be performed to detect autoantibodies and evidence of antibody-mediated inflammation. This combined with clinical signs and symptoms forms the diagnosis of SLE.

Who is affected?

It is estimated to affect around 5 million people in the world. Before puberty, both sexes are equally likely to develop the condition but symptoms and diagnosis usually occurs between 15-45 years old. In this latter group, 9 out of 10 people diagnosed with lupus are women.


Treatment plans are directed to alleviating the signs and symptoms the person experiences and avoiding environment triggers, if known. The medication options include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, corticosteroids, immunosuppressants and sometimes low dose chemotherapy. At present there is no cure for lupus. The leading cause of death is from cardiovascular disease due to accelerated atherosclerosis.

The China-Australia Center for Personalised Immunology is investigating the cause of this chronic autoimmune disease, to improve treatment and to help to find a cure for this little known autoimmune disorder.

Information on this page is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.