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What is Systemic Lupus Erythematosus?

Systemic lupus erythematosus [err-RITH-muh-toe-sis] is also called SLE or just “lupus.” It’s an autoimmune disorder, meaning your child’s immune system attacks the healthy tissues of your child’s body by mistake. SLE can attack the tissues of the skin, joints, kidneys, brain, and other organs.

The immune system is supposed to protect the body from illness, infection, and disease, but sometimes it doesn’t work in the right way and attacks the healthy cells of your body instead of protecting them. When this happens, it is called an autoimmune disease (also called an autoimmune disorder). There are many different types of autoimmune disorder that affect different parts of the body. Besides lupus, common autoimmune disorders include rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.

Doctors don’t know knows why autoimmune disorders happen, although they tend to run in families. This means there might be genetic or inherited factors leading to this disease. Women tend to have a higher chance of developing an autoimmune disorder, especially African-American, Native-American, and Hispanic American women.


Signs and symptoms of a lupus may vary depending on the tissues in your child’s body that are affected, but usually include muscle aches, fatigue (very tired), a low fever, and inflammation [in-fluh-MAY-shun].

Inflammation happens when the body’s immune system is attacking something in your body. Signs of inflammation are:

  • Redness.  The inflamed part of the body will look more red than the rest of your skin.
  • Heat.  The inflamed body part might feel warm or hot, and you might be able to feel this warmth when you touch it.
  • Swelling. Inflammation can make the affected body part swell up larger than its normal size.
  • Pain. Inflammation is painful, and moving or touching the inflamed area can make this pain worse.
  • Loss of function. This happens when the part of your body that is inflamed can no longer move properly.

Not all five signs occur with inflammation, and sometimes inflammation can happen without any symptoms. Other common symptoms of lupus may include:

  • Being very tired
  • Fever (usually without any other reason)
  • Chest pains, especially when taking a deep breath
  • Hair loss
  • Mouth sores
  • Aches and general discomfort for no reason
  • Light sensitivity, especially to sunlight
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Skin rash

Other symptoms of lupus will depend on what part of the body is affected. These symptoms may include:

  • Heart. Arrhythmia (abnormal or irregular heartbeat)
  • Lungs. Difficulty breathing, or in rare cases coughing up blood 
  • Skin. Rashes, patchy skin color, and fingers that change color when they get cold (also called Raynaud’s syndrome or Raynaud’s phenomenon)
  • Brain and nervous system. Numbness and tingling anywhere in the body, seizures, difficulty seeing (vision problems), personality changes, and/or headaches.
  • Kidneys. Weight gain and/or swollen legs

Once your child is diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, you can treat the symptoms, but it doesn’t ever go away. There may be times it flares up and gets worse, and other times when it goes into remission, which is when the symptoms seem to get better or disappear.

When to See a Doctor

If your child shows any of the symptoms of lupus, take them to see their healthcare provider to help figure out what is wrong. Autoimmune conditions like lupus can be tricky to diagnose, since the symptoms can be different for each person and can change over time. It is also hard because the symptoms can also be signs of other conditions that your child’s healthcare provider may want to test for and rule out.

The sooner you start trying to find a diagnosis, the sooner your child may get the treatment they need.


There are no known causes for autoimmune disorders, including lupus, at this time. Because they tend to run in families, there may be genetic causes. Women, especially Hispanic-American, African-American, and Native-American women, tend to have a higher chance to develop an autoimmune condition. You also have a higher chance of developing an autoimmune condition if you already have one or more autoimmune disorders.

Diagnosis and Tests

Sometimes an autoimmune disease can be difficult to diagnose, and may take a lot of time. The sooner your child’s healthcare provider starts trying to diagnose it, the better. In order to diagnose an autoimmune disorder, your child’s healthcare provider will start with a physical exam and ask about your child’s family history. They might ask about other family members who you know have had lupus or other autoimmune diseases. After this, they might take some blood samples from your child and send them to a lab for testing.


Lupus is treated by a doctor specializing in autoimmune disorders, called a rheumatologist [ROO-mah-TAHL-uh-jist].

Although there is no way to get rid of lupus once you have it, you can treat the symptoms. Once your disorder is diagnosed, your doctor can help you figure out how to manage any pain or inflammation that goes with your disorder.

Treatments vary depending on the disease and your child’s age. Treatment will be adjusted according to your child’s stages of growth and development. Sometimes doctors will prescribe prescription medicines, such as corticosteroids (cor-tih-co-stare-oids) to reduce immune response and help stop the symptoms.


Since doctors don’t know what causes SLE, there is no known way to prevent it at this time. Instead, it’s best to diagnose the disease as soon as possible and find a treatment that can help reduce or prevent the symptoms.
Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease where your child’s immune system attacks the healthy tissues of your child’s body by mistake. Diagnosis can be complicated, and there is no cure, but the right treatment can help manage your child’s symptoms and improve their quality of life.