Are You Confident of the Diagnosis?

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a diverse autoimmune disease that can affect many organ systems and has variable clinical and immunologic manifestations. Cutaneous manifestations is the presenting symptom in nearly a quarter of patients with SLE. There are lupus erythematosus specific and nonspecific cutaneous skin lesions. Nonspecific skin lesions mostly reflect vascular disease that is associated with SLE. Clinically this may present as leukocytoclastic vasculitis, livedo reticularis, urticarial vasculitis, periungual telangiectasias, mucosal ulcers, and hemorrhagic lesions.

Specific lupus erythematosus lesions include a variety of skin conditions called cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CLE). CLE subsets are categorized into chronic cutaneous lupus erythematosus (CCLE), subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE), and acute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (ACLE). Acute CLE, including bullous lupus erythematosus and some nonspecific LE lesions will be discussed in the chapter. Patients with organ involvement, other than the skin, should be managed by a rheumatologist.

Characteristic findings on physical examination

To make a diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus, 4 of 11 criteria set forth by the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) must be met.

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  • Malar rash

  • Discoid rash

  • Photosensitivity

  • Oral uclers (oral or nasopharyngeal)

  • Arthritis (nonerosive, involving 2 or more joints)

  • Serositis (pleuritis, pericarditis or pericardial effusion)

  • Renal disorder

  • Neurologic disorder (seizures or psychosis)

  • Hematologic disorder (hemolytic anemia, leukopenia, lymphopenia, thrombocytopenia)

  • Positive anti-nuclear antibody (ANA)

  • Anti-dsDNA or anti-Smith antibody

There is an emphasis on skin involvement with four cutaneous findings included in the criteria: malar rash, discoid rash, photosensitivity, and oral ulcers. Using these criteria, some patients with disease limited to the skin can be classified as having SLE.

There are other limitations to the criteria such as the association between the malar rash and photosensitivity, the association between the discoid rash and oral ulcers, the difficulty of definitively diagnosing the malar rash or discoid lupus without a biopsy, and the lack of specificity of oral ulcers for LE. Having said that, cutaneous lesions play an important role in the diagnosis of SLE .

Expected results of diagnostic studies

Laboratory findings found in SLE include a positive ANA, which is one of the criteria for the diagnosis of SLE. If the ANA is negative and the clinical signs strongly suggest SLE, checking an anti-SSA (Ro) antibody can be helpful. ANA-negative SLE is rare, but greater than 50% of ANA-negative patients are positive for anti-SSA antibodies. Two antibodies that are very specific for SLE are anti-dsDNA and anti-Smith antibody. They are found in over 95% of patients with SLE.

Although not included in the ACR criteria for SLE, complement levels can be helpful diagnostically. Total serum hemolytic complement (CH50) and individual complement components (C3 and C4) may be low in patients with active SLE.

Acute Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus/Photosensitivity

ACLE is most frequently associated with SLE. Approximately 30% to 60% of patients with SLE develop this eruption at some point in their disease course.

Nonscarring malar erythema that typically spares the nasolabial folds creating a “butterfly rash” is the typical presentation of ACLE (Figure 1). This eruption is extremely photosensitive and its development has a close temporal relationship with sun exposure, as compared with DLE. It can last hours to days. A more extensive, morbilliform eruption, generalized ACLE, is less common. Typically this presents as an erythematous, edematous eruption. Progression of generalized ACLE to bullous or toxic epidermal necrolysis-like skin lesions is rare.

Figure 1.

Acute systemic lupus erythematosus

When the dorsal hands are involved, erythema tends to spare the knuckles, which helps distinguish ACLE from dermatomyositis. ACLE frequently coincides with flares of the systemic disease and can be the presenting sign of SLE. The eruption is non-scarring but may cause post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, particularly in patients with darker skin type.

A skin biopsy can help confirm the diagnosis and can be used to rule out other causes of photodistributed eruptions such as acne rosacea, photocontact dermatitis, phototoxic dermatitis and polymorphous light eruption. Histopathologic findings can be subtle, but typically include dermal edema with focal areas of basal vacuolar changes. Epidermal necrosis can also be seen (Figure 2). A direct immunofluorescence will demonstrate immunoglobulins and/or complements at the dermoepidermal junction.

Figure 2.

An example of the histology of chronic cutaneous lupus, which may be associated with systemic disease. The histology of the classical malar rash is far more subtle, characterized by vacuolar alteration at the epidermal-dermal junction with a modest perivascular infiltrate.(Courtesy of Bryan Anderson, MD)

Oral Ulcers

Oral lesions can be seen in CLE as discoid lupus mucosal lesions and in SLE. It may be easier to consider oral lesions as the mucosal counterpart of CLE. Clinical descriptions in the literature of oral lesions vary tremendously. There is no uniform classification system for oral ulcers as there is for CLE.

Oral discoid lesions may present as well demarcated red atrophic or ulcerated plaques with white radiating keratotic striae and telangiectasias. Variants may include “honey-comb plaques,” which represent mucosal scarring, intensely keratotic white lesions (analogous to hypertrophic DLE), and linear, fissured lesions can be seen on the buccal mucosa. Discoid mucosal lesions tend to be asymmetrical, which helps differentiate them from lichen planus that typically presents symmetrically.

Oral lesions in systemically ill patients with SLE is common. The presentation varies from erythematous macules to diffuse palatal erythema. Focal or diffuse erosions and ulcerations can also occur and tend to be symmetrically distributed. Purpuric macules and petechiae have also been described.

Histopathology of mucosal LE lesions typically show superficial and deep perivascular and interface dermatitis. Edema and mucin of the lamina propria and necrotic basal keratinocytes (focal or widespread) is also a consistent finding. Thickening of the basement membrane and blood vessel walls may be found.

Nonspecific LE skin lesions

Nonspecific LE skin lesions include lesions that lack lupus erythematosus-specific histopathology. They can be divided into cutaneous vascular diseases, nonscarring alopecia and miscellaneous dermatoses.

Cutaneous vascular disease encompasses vasculitis, vasculopathy, livedo reticularis, erythromelalgia, periungual telangiectasia, thrombophlebitis and Raynaud phenomenon. The most frequent vasculitis manifestation is small vessel leukocytoclastic vasculitis. Clinically this presents as red or violaceous papules or plaques (palpable purpura).

Urticarial lesions that last for longer than 24 hours and are more tender than pruritic is a typical presentation of uriticarial vasculitis, which can occur. Livedo reticularis, a net-like erythema, is seen often in the setting of severe vascular disease associated with SLE. These may include antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, systemic vasculitis and vasculopathy.

Non-scarring alopecia can present three ways in patients with SLE:

– lupus hairs: thinning at the frontal hairline with prominent shortened hairs. This may be seen during SLE disease flares.

– alopecia areata: discrete patches of hair loss with retention of follicular ostia

– telogen effluvium: diffuse hair thinning

Miscellaneous dermatoses include a variety of findings such as sclerodactyly, rheumatoid nodules, calcinosis cutis, cutis laxa and leg ulcers (atrophie blanche).

Bullous Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Bullous systemic lupus erythematosus (BSLE) is a subepidermal bullous disease that occurs in less than 5% of patients with SLE. It is caused by autoantibodies against type VII collagen. Clinically, patients present with a widespread eruption of tense bullae on a background of erythema. The bullous lesions of BSLE are not caused by an extension of the skin lesions showing interface dermatitis, thus it is considered a non-LE-specific skin lesion. The bullous lesions are non scarring, but may leave residual dyspigmentation.

Histopathology demonstrates a subepidermal split with a neutrophil predominant upper dermal infiltrate. Direct immunofluorescence will show immunoglobulin (IgG, but also IgM or IgA) and complement at the basement membrane zone. Indirect immunofluorescence on salt-split skin will show circulating serum antibodies to type VII collagen that may react with epitopes on the dermal and/or epidermal side.

A diagnosis of BSLE requires the following:


– vesiculobullous eruption

– subepidermal blister histology with a predominant neutrophilic infiltrate

– positive DIF at basement membrane zone for immunoglobulins and complement.

Who is at Risk for Developing this Disease?

Clinical studies have consistently demonstrated a female predominance for SLE, approaching 90%. SLE appears in all age groups, but the peak incidence is during the ages of 15 to 44 years. The median age at diagnosis is approximately 37 years. Males may present at a later age. A greater incidence of SLE has consistently been found in blacks compared with whites.

What is the Cause of the Disease?

Lupus erythematosus is an autoimmune disease felt to be due to an interplay of genetics, hormones and environment. Given that lupus is more common in women of childbearing age, estrogen is felt to be a cause. In terms of genetics, genes encoding for cytokines, cytokine receptors, adhesion molecules and apoptosis genes are felt to contribute to the development of lupus erythematosus. Inherited deficiencies of complement also play a role in the risk of lupus development.

The most well known environmental trigger of SLE and most CLE lesions is ultraviolet light. UV light induces pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines and adhesion molecules that eventually lead to tissue injury. Both UVB and/or UVA can contribute to induction of skin lesions. Trauma or koebnerization can also play a role in CLE development through proinflammatory factors.

Autoantibodies are a hallmark of autoimmune diseases. ANA is commonly seen in SLE and CLE as well as anti-Ro/SSA and anti-dsDNA. ANA is not specific for CLE or SLE; a small percentage of the general population will be positive and positivity increases with increasing age. However, the majority of patients with SLE have a positive ANA. Immunoglobulins and complements can be detected in patients with CLE and SLE with direct immunofluorescence. Their role in local induction of clinical lesions is unknown.

Overall, this complex inflammatory cascade between necrosis, apoptosis, autoantibodies, T and B cells, and vascular changes leads to the development of systemic and cutaneous lupus erythematosus. However, a complete understanding of the pathophysiology is not known.

Systemic Implications and Complications

In addition to the skin, multiple other organ systems are involved and have a signficiant effect on morbidity and mortality in patients with SLE. Screening for underlying SLE with clinical history, physical examination and laboratory evaluation to assess for involvement of the central nervous, renal, hematologic, pulmonary and cardiovascular systems is warranted in all patients newly presenting with CLEplete, particularly ACLE.

An initial ANA, complete blood count (CBC), and urinalysis is sufficient for those patients with CCLE, SCLE or non-specific LE findings, without other symptoms. Given that an ANA assay has a 99% negative predictive value, it is rare for a patient with SLE to have a negative ANA. This is also a more cost-effective way to use specific anutoantibody tests. If the ANA is elevated (>1:160) or a patient has symptoms suggestive of systemic lupus, further testing is warranted. These may include anti-dsDNA, anti-Smith, CBC with differential, creatinine, albumin, total protein, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and complements (CH50, C3, C4). If significant systemic symptoms of SLE are suspected, a rheumatologist should be involved in the management.

Treatment Options

Table 1. Medical treatment options for SLE

Table 1.
Sun protection and avoidance     Broad spectrum, UVA and UVB,     sunscreen protectionSmoking cessation     TopicalTopical steroids, class I or II (may use lower strength on face)Topical calcineurin inhibitors with or without topical steroid     Tacrolimus 0.1% ointment     Pimecrolimus 1% creamIntralesional triamcinolone 3 to 5mg/mL (for oral lesions; for associated alopecia areata up to 10 mg/mL)    SystemicAntimalarials:     Hydroxychloroquine 6.0 to 6.5mg/kg/day IBW     Hydroxychloroquine + quinacrine 100mg daily     Chloroquine <3.5mg/kg/day IBW +/- quinacrine 100mg dailyDapsone 50 to 150mg/day (for BSLE)Prednisone 0.5 to 0.75mg/kg/dayMethotrexate 5 to 25mg/weekMycophenolate mofetil 2 to 3g/dayAzathioprine 1 to 2.5 mg/kg/dayIVIG 0.4mg/kg/day x 5 daysRituximab 375mg/m2 weekly x 4 weeks

IBW,  ideal body weight

Optimal Therapeutic Approach for this Disease

The treatment goal for systemic lupus erythematosus is to decrease inflammation to avoid organ damage. In terms of ACLE and non-specific LE cutaneous findings, controlling the underlying disease is paramount.

Sun avoidance and protection with the use of broad spectrum sunscreen that covers both the UVA and UVB ranges should be discussed with all patients with SLE. Although the exact role of UV light in the pathogenesis of non-specific LE cutaneous findings is unclear, we do know that UV light plays a role in SLE, particularly ACLE. The use of broad spectrum sunscreens to cover the UVB and UVA spectrum is necessary and ideally includes sunscreens with helioplex, mexoryl or physical blockers (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide). An SPF of at least 30 is necessary for daily use.

Cigarette smokers are found to have more severe CLE disease. Antimalarials may also be less effective in those patients who smoke. As a result, all patients with LE should begin a smoking cessation program.

Multidisciplinary interventions are paramount in the management of patients with systemic SLE and those with CLE that go on to develop major organ (renal, hematologic, pulmonary, cardiac, gastrointestinal (GI), nervous system) involvement. A rheumatologist must be part of the treatment team for all patients with organ system involvement.

Topical therapy with steroids can be initiated as first-line therapy with or without calcineurin inhibitors. Topical steroid should be tried in patients with limited and mild skin disease before starting systemic therapies. Potent topical steroids may be used on the body and weaker, class VI or VII, may be used on the face as a trial for 2 to 4 weeks.

Fluocinonide 0.05% or clobetasol 0.05% gel, ointment or cream may be used for CLE lesions on the body. For lesions on the face or skin folds desonide 0.05% or triamcinolone 0.025% cream, lotion, or ointment initially may be tried. If no improvement is seen with these low-potency topicals, you can increase the potency to mometasone 0.1% cream, lotion or ointment.

Topical calcineurin inhibitors, such as tacrolimus 0.1% ointment, have been shown to be effective in CLE and offer a decreased risk of telangiectasia development compared with topical steriods. Calcineurin inhibitors are particularly helpful for lesions on the face. Combining topical steroids and calcineurin inhibitors may provide an added benefit. These topical regimens may be used in both LE-specific, such as ACLE, and non-specific skin lesions.

Intralesional triamcinolone at doses of 3 to 5mg/mL may be used for alopecia areata in the beard and eyebrow areas in patients with SLE. For alopecia areata in the scalp, a higher dose up to 10mg/mL may be used. Depending on the number of lesions present, 1 to 3mL may be needed and can be administered every month. Side effects include hypopigmentation and skin atrophy.


Antimalarials are recommended as first-line systemic therapy for CLE and SLE given its effectiveness in prevention and treatment of symptoms, such as photosensitivity, acute malar rash, DLE, oral ulcers, alopecia, arthritis, pleuritis, and pericarditis. The majority of patients with DLE respond to single-agent or combination antimalarial therapy.

Hydroxychloroquine is the treatment of choice over chloroquine given its lower ocular toxicity risk. Typically, hydroxychloroquine is started at 200mg to 400mg a day. To avoid ocular toxicity, the daily dose should not exceed 6.5mg/kg IBW per day. Ideal body weight is calculated as follows: 45.5kg (use 50kg for males) + 2.3 kg for each inch over 5 feet; or 45.5kg + 2.3kg * (height [inches]-60).

Antimalarials take 2 to 3 months for improvement to be noticed and up to 6 months for a complete response. After 8 to 12 weeks, if improvement is not satisfactory, addition of quinacrine 100mg daily may be added. Quinacrine can only be obtained at compounding pharmacies. It may cause yellow discoloration of the skin.

If the combination of hydroxychloroquine and quinacrine has not provided complete response after 6 months, changing to chloroquine plus quinacrine is an option. Chloroquine is typically started at a dose of 250mg 5 to 7 days a week and should not exceed 3.5mg/kg IBW per day. The lowest possible effective dose should be used for maintenance therapy. Antimalarials may be used safely for long periods of time.

The recommended doses listed in the Table are based on the maximal safe dose from an ocular safety perspective. The retinopathy associated with antimalarials (chloroquine) is often irreversible. The blurred vision and corneal deposition that may occur is reversible. The use of hydroxychloroquine necessitates eye examinations every 6 months and with chloroquine every 4 months. The eye examination should include visual acuity, visual fields, and fundoscopic examination. Patients with a history of retinopathy should not get hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine.

Patients who get a drug exanthem with hydroxychloroquine may be able to tolerate chloroquine, while an urticarial reaction from hydroxychloroquine would preclude use of chloroquine. Other side effects include nausea, headaches, myopathy, and bluish-gray hyperpigmentation of the skin.

In addition to a baseline eye examination, a CBC and liver function test are recommended at baseline and after 1 month of use.

If antimalarials are not effective, second-line systemic therapies including thalidomide and immunosuppressives may be required. Specifically, if refractory and widespread DLE lesions persist, or patients have concomitant SLE symptoms, they may benefit from these steroid-sparing immunosuppressants. In some instances, these immunosuppressants are initially used in combination with prednisone. Once the medication takes effect, the goal is to taper off the prednisone. However, prednisone is not often used in DLE as high doses are usually necessary to achieve a response.


Dapsone is the treatment of choice in bullous LE and has been shown to act quickly and effectively. The response is often dramatic with cessation of blister formation in 24 to 48 hours and clearance of the eruption in 7 to 10 days. Low doses of 25 to 50mg are usually enough for these results. It has also been shown to be effective in hypocomplementemia with urticarial vasculitis.

Severe adverse effects are related to hematotoxicity and can be seen as hemolytic anemia and/or methemoglobinemia. Both are dose dependent and occur, to some degree, in all patients who take dapsone. A glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) level should be tested in all patients being considered for dapsone, as the risk of hemolytic anemia is significantly increased if there is a deficiency.

Peripheral motor neuropathy can be observed and typically resolves completely after dose reduction or drug discontinuation. Agranulocytosis is a serious, idiosyncratic adverse effect of dapsone. Patients normally will experience a 2g/dL drop in hemoglobin, but greater drops of below 10g/dL necessitate an adjustment of dose. Patients may experience a clinically unimportant drop in their 02 saturation, which is not routinely monitored.

Baseline laboratory tests include CBC with differential, complete metabolic panel (liver function tests and renal function), urinalysis and G6PD level. During each visit, assess peripheral motor neuropathy, CBC with differential (every week while the dose is being increased, then monthly for 3 months, then every 3 months), and complete metabolic panel (every 3 months).


Given the chronic and recurrent nature of most CLE subsets, use of steroids should be avoided. However, there are several instances in which prednisone can and should be used. In cases of ACLE associated with systemic lupus flares, while awaiting antimalarials or immunosuppressives to take effect, or in systemic lupus disease where there is organ system involvement. Prednisone 0.5mg/kg/day to 0.75mg/kg/day can be used to control the cutaneous lesions of SLE. Prednisone should not be used alone, as lesions recur once prednisone is stopped. Tapering prednisone as soon as CLE lesions are stable is recommended.

The degree and extent of bone loss is most closely related to cumulative corticosteroid dose. The most rapid rate of bone loss is during the first 3 to 6 months of therapy. All patients starting glucocorticoids at any dose with an anticipated duration of at least 3 months or longer should start calcium 1200 to 1500mg/day and vitamin D 800 to 1000 International Units/day supplementation. These patients should also be counseled on smoking cessation and weight-bearing activities. Additionally, they should be assessed for fall risk, baseline height, and history of fragility fractures.

A baseline bone mineral density scan or radiographic imaging of the spine or vertebral fracture assessment may be done (particuarly in postmenopausal women). In childbearing-age women, the use of bisphosphonates is only considered for those with a history of fragility fractures given the unknown risk of long-term bisphosphonate use and risk to the fetus. However, postmenopausal women are recommended to begin a bisphosphonate, such as alendronate or risedronate, if the corticosteroid dose is greater than 5mg and the anticipated length of treatment is at least 3 months.

The well-known side effects of prednisone include include weight gain, fluid retention, psychiatric disturbances, hypertension, and hyperglycemia. Osteoporosis, myopathy and cushingoid changes are additional adverse reactions that can be avoided with short therapeutic courses. Of note, osteonecrosis can occur with even short courses of prednisone.

Although unlikely, if after 3 months of therapy with antimalarials and oral prednisone results are unsatisfactory, a steroid-sparing agent should be initiated. Methotrexate (MTX), mycophenolate mofetil (MMF) or azathioprine is a reasonable choice and all have been used in management of SLE symptoms.


MTX use in SLE has substantial evidence. In fact, there are randomized controlled trials showing the benefit of MTX on overall SLE activity, reduction in glucocorticoid doses, and effects on lupus arthritis and lupus skin manifestations. In addition, MTX may be helpful in vasculitis, hematologic, and prehaps renal manifestations of SLE. Intrathecal MTX was successfully used in neuropsychiatric SLE. Taken together, using MTX in SLE is not only a common approach, but, at least in part, supported by evidence in clinical trials.

MTX in lupus erythematosus can be used in doses of 5 to 25mg weekly. MTX typically takes 3 to 4 weeks for clinical improvement. A typical test dose is 5mg, and then increase 5mg weekly to the dose needed to control symptoms. The lowest possible maintenance dose needed to control disease should be used. Doses as low as 5mg a week have been successfully used to maintain clinical remission.

A potential for hepatotoxicity, with long-term use, and pulmonary toxicity is an important consideration. Patients who drink alcohol should not receive MTX, and underlying viral hepatitis, obesity and diabetes are associated with an increased risk of hepatotoxicity, including liver fibrosis.

Bone marrow suppression is a severe adverse reaction. Risk factors for this side effect include drug interactions (trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole [TMP/SMX] and NSAIDS), renal insufficiency, older age (>65) and no folate supplementation. Frequent CBCs are important to monitor for this adverse reaction and all patients should be on folate supplementation.

Baseline laboratory tests should include CBC, complete metabolic panel (liver and renal function), hepatitis B and C serologies, and HIV testing. After the first dose of MTX, a CBC and liver function laboratories should be done in 1 week. If laboratory tests are normal, repeat testing of CBC and liver function, every week as the dose is increased and then monthly thereafter for 3 months is warranted.

After a year of a stable dose with no serious toxicity, blood monitoring can decrease to every 3 months. Renal function can be evaluated once a year, or sooner if renal dysfunction is suspected. Weekly intramuscular injections may improve GI intolerance due to oral MTX.

Mycophenolate mofetil

MMF is well tolerated and has been shown to be effective in CLE and SLE. The most common adverse reaction from this therapeutic agent is GI side effects, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. These symptoms are typically dose dependent and may be avoided by starting at a lower dose. In patients with GI side effects, one can start with 500mg once or twice a day and then titrate dose up per tolerability every 2 to 4 weeks to goal dose of 2 to 3g/day.

As with any immunosuppressant, MMF can increase the risk of infections. Less common side effects include myelosuppression and transaminitis. MMF typically takes approximately 4 weeks to take effect.

Baseline laboratory tests include CBC with differential and liver function tests, as well as hepatitis B and C serologies and HIV testing. Laboratory tests should be checked 2 weeks after starting therapy, and 2 weeks after increases in dose. Monthly CBC and liver function tests for the first year, then every 3 months, are recommended. Maintenance doses of 1.5 to 3g a day can be used safely.


Azathioprine is an immunosuppressant that has been extensively studied in lupus erythematosus as a steroid-sparing agent. An initial dose of 50mg a day is suggested to determine acute toxicity/sensitivity. The dose can be increased by 25mg every 2 weeks with a goal of achieving a range between 2 to 3mg/kg/day. In CLE, azathioprine doses of 100 to 150mg are commonly needed to achieve desired effects. Clinical effects are typically seen in 4 to 8 weeks. The maintenance dose can range from 50 to 150mg daily and may be continued for years.

Side effects include GI symptoms of nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramping. Pancreatitis and hepatotoxicity have also been reported. Hypersensitivity reaction, aseptic meningitis and increased cancer risk are also known adverse reactions. Flu-like symptoms may occur within the first 2 weeks of use.

Prior to the use of azathioprine, a thiopurine methyltransferase (TPMT) enzyme level can be done, particularly if doses above 50mg a day are used initially. Low levels increase the risk of myelosuppression and potentially fatal neutropenia. A CBC and liver function tests should be performed every 2 weeks while the dose is being adjusted, then every month for the first year, and then every 3 months.

Intravenous immunoglobulins

Intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIG) have been shown in a few case reports to provide improvement during a systemic lupus flare and in some CLE lesions. Improvement has been seen as soon as 2 to 3 weeks. A dose of 1g/kg/day for 2 days and 0.4g/kg/day for 5 days have been reported. IVIG can be administered monthly or every 3 months depending on disease activity.

Given the high cost, close monitoring during infusions, and adverse reactions, IVIG has been used in those patients with concomitant severe SLE on high doses of corticosteroids, combined with other cytotoxic agents. Common adverse effects include headache, low-grade fever, and chills. Severe side effects include acute renal failure and thrombotic events. Individuals with IgA deficiency are at increased risk of developing an anaphylactic reaction, thus serum IgA levels should be assessed prior to administration of IVIG.


Rituximab has been successful in the treatment of lupus nephritis and autoimmune cytopenias seen in SLE. It has also been effective in the treatment of both the systemic and cutaneous vasculitis associated with SLE. One case of rituximab use in refractory SCLE has been reported. However, the use of this medication in patients with CLE alone is not recommended given the cost and side-effect profile. Common side effects include fever, chills, rigors, orthostatic hypotension and bronchospasms with infusions and neutropenia, thrombocytopenia, and asthenia. Rarely, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy can occur.

Baseline CBC, metabolic panel, urinalysis, hepatitis serologies, HIV and tuberculosis tests should be performed. No live vaccines should be administered to patients receiving rituximab.

Patient Management

The goal of any therapy for SLE, including specific and non-specific LE cutaneous features, is to minimize inflammation to avoid end-organ damage. Mainstay therapies for the majority of patients with SLE and CLE are topical therapies and antimalarials. Both of these therapies have limited severe adverse reactions. However, patients with refractory or widespread disease must begin therapies that carry higher risks for severe side effects. It is important to discuss all side effects and monitoring guidelines prior to initiating therapy.

After antimalarials, there is no one agent that is superior in the treatment of CLE lesions. Thus, when ascending the therapeutic ladder, individualizing therapy for patients based on their co-morbidities and disease severity is necessary. Furthermore, after clearance of CLE lesions, therapies should be reduced to the lowest effective dose, or discontinued.

The next step is to provide patients with therapeutic modalities that minimize disease progression and improve treatment response. All patients must be counseled on sun avoidance and protection, including avoidance of artificial tanning beds and photosensitizing medications. On a similar note, the role of smoking in disease severity must be stressed at the initial visit. All patients should be encouraged to stop smoking and begin a smoking cessation program.

Unusual Clinical Scenarios to Consider in Patient Management

SLE and other connective tissue diseases can initially present with nonspecific symptoms and clinical features that seem to overlap. Furthermore, these symptoms often change over time and an exact connective tissue disease diagnosis may not be possible early in the course of the disease. However, certain clinical and laboratory features may help predict the development of a specific established connective tissue disease.

For instance, U1-RNP antibodies predict mixed connective tissue disease; sicca symptoms plus anti-SSA/anti-SSB predict Sjõgren’s syndrome; Raynaud’s and a nucleolar ANA pattern predict scleroderma; whereas fever, serositis and homogenous ANA pattern predict progression to SLE. Mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD) is that of an overlap syndrome that embraces features of scleroderma, SLE, and an inflammatory myopathy. Thus, these patients can present with quite diverse clinical features and close follow-up is required.

The presence of CLE lesions may help clinicians differentiate SLE from other connective tissue disease, since CLE lesions are not typically seen in Sjogren’s syndrome, scleroderma or the inflammatory myopathies.

Management of SLE in the pregnant patient may be challenging. Family planning is important for these patients. Ideally, planning for pregnancy once SLE is inactive for at least 6 months is recommended. However, even if the disease is controlled, SLE patients may flare during pregnancy. Prior to conception, if not already done, checking for antiphospholipid antibodies is necessary, as anticoagulation therapy during pregnancy may be indicated. Checking for anti-SSA and anti-SSB antibodies is necessary because there is a small risk of congential heart block in women with these antibodies.

During pregnancy, monitoring for lupus nephritis with regular blood pressure and proteinuria checks is important. Differentiating between preeclampsia and lupus nephritis will require evaluation of the urinary sediment, presence of other systemic signs of lupus activity and complement levels.

As mentioned above, patients with SLE should be managed together with a rheumatologist. Depending on the severity of disease, a high-risk obstetrician may be necessary. Particularly, if the patient has active SLE with lupus nephritis, history of congenital heart block, and antiphospholipid syndrome a high-risk obstetrician and close follow-up with a rheumatologist is essential.

There is little evidence regarding therapy of SLE during pregnancy. Typically, patients with active SLE and mild disease are managed during pregnancy with oral corticosteroids. If the disease is more severe, treatment with corticosteroids, azathioprine, cyclosporine and intravenous gamma globulin may be used. At this time, there is not enough safety information on the use of MMF in pregnancy. Hydroxychloroquine has evidence for its safety and efficacy during pregnancy; however, it is still considered a class C drug by the Food and Drug Administration.

Libman-Sacks endocarditis is usually clinically silent and in rare cases can present with valvular dysfunction. Of course, embolic phenomena and bacterial endocarditis can complicate this condition and thus, osler nodes, splinter hemorrhage, and janeway lesions may be present. This is exceedingly rare.

What is the Evidence?

Danchenko, N, Satia, JA, Anthony, MS. “Epidemiology of systemic lupus erythematosus: a comparison of worldwide disease burden”. Lupus. vol. 15. 2006. pp. 308-18. (A comprehensive comparison of the incidence and prevalence of SLE in the United States and throughout the world.)

Bernatsky, S, Peschken, C, Fortin, PR, Pineau, CA, Urowitz, MB, Gladman, DD. ” Medication use in systemic lupus erythematosus”. J Rheumatol. vol. 38. 2011. pp. 271-4. (Disclosed that treatment strategies are not uniform for SLE. Clinical practice patterns revealed that disease activity and damage scores were predictors of immunosuppressive use.)

Werth, V. “Current treatment of cutaneous lupus erythematosus”. Dermatol Online J. vol. 7. 2001. pp. 2(A concise discussion of the treatment options used in CLE.)

Kiani, AN, Petri, M. “Quality of life measurements versus disease activity in systemic lupus erythematosus”. Curr Rheumatol Rep. vol. 12. 2010. pp. 250-8. (Analyzes the modes of assessment in SLE and notes that disease activity or organ damage is not strongly related to quality of life.)

Bertsias, GK, Salmon, JE, Boumpas, DT. “Therapeutic opportunities in systemic lupus erythematosus: state of the art and prospects for the new decade”. Ann Rheum Dis. vol. 69. 2010. pp. 1603-11. (The article gives a concise overview of the role of autoantibodies and disease course of SLE. Etiology of disease and management is also discussed through useful schematics.)

García-Carrasco, M, Jiménez-Hernández, M, Escárcega, RO, Mendoza-Pinto, C, Galarza-Maldonado, C, Sandoval-Cruz, M. “Use of rituximab in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus: an update”. Autoimmunity Reviews. vol. 8. 2009. pp. 343-8. (The preliminary results of targeted B cell therapies is explored, including the clinical efficacy of rituximab.)