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The symptoms of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) vary from mild to severe and debilitating. In some, only one part of the body—for example, the skin—is affected. In others, many parts of the body are affected. Each case is unique in the combination of symptoms that it produces. Symptoms usually flare up and subside intermittently though symptoms of SLE can be chronic in some. SLE may cause:

  • General symptoms such as:
    • Fatigue
    • Headaches
    • Fever without signs of infection
    • Swollen, enlarged lymph nodes which may be felt around the throat
    • Unexplained weight loss or loss of appetite
  • Mouth symptoms, such as ulcerations
  • Musculoskeletal symptoms such as:
    • Arthritis—inflammation of the joints
    • Arthralgia—pain in the joints
    • Inflammation of the muscles
    • Muscle weakness
  • Skin symptoms such as:
    • A hallmark symptom of SLE is a butterfly-shaped rash over the nose and cheeks
    • Photosensitivity—sensitivity to sun and light, easily burned by the sun
    • Hair loss
    • Raynaud's phenomenon—reduced circulation resulting in numbness, or blue or white fingertips when cold
    • Red or purple rash
    • Hives
  • Heart and lung symptoms, such as chest pain and shortness of breath
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
  • Kidney symptoms, such as blood in the urine or swelling
  • Neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as:
    • Psychiatric disorders, such as depression
    • Seizures
    • Peripheral neuropathy—nerve pain or numbness
    • Inflammation around one or both sides the spinal cord, which may lead to pain, muscle stiffness, or paralysis

A Hallmark Symptom of SLE

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SLE Complications

Over time SLE can lead to complications, such as:

  • Kidney disease—Chronic inflammation can damage of structures in the kidney. Damage prevents the kidneys from working properly.
  • Cardiovascular disorders—Inflammation can affect tissue of the blood vessels, heart, and heart valves. The inflammation and long term tissue damage can contribute to a variety of cardiovascular conditions, such as high blood pressure, heart failure, heart attack, or stroke.
  • Respiratory problems—Chronic inflammation can eventually damage and scar the tissue of the lungs or the lining around the lungs. Damaged lung tissue makes it more difficult to get oxygen into the blood and cause chest pain or difficulty breathing.
  • Neurological disorders—Inflammation of nerves can contribute to headaches, mood disorders, cognitive impairment, psychosis, and seizures .
  • Blood disorders—Inflammation can also lead to damage of individual blood cells and lead to anemia, thrombocytopenia, leukopenia, or an increased risk of blood clots (which can lead to heart attack or stroke).

SLE may also cause complications during pregnancy. There may be a flare-up of symptoms, development of kidney problems, or a dangerous high blood pressure called pre-eclampsia. There is also an increased risk of premature birth , stillbirth , miscarriage, or growth problems with the baby during pregnancy.


Lupus. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: Updated February 2015. Accessed May 17, 2016.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated September 15, 2016. Accessed October 6, 2016.

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Merck Manual Professional Version website. Available at: Updated June 2013. Accessed May 17, 2016.

What are the most common symptoms of lupus? Lupus Foundation of America website. Available at: Updated May 28, 2013. Accessed May 17, 2016.

5/6/2011 DynaMed Plus Systematic Literature Surveillance Smyth A, Oliveira GH, Lahr BD, Bailey KR, Norby SM, Garovic VD. A systematic review and meta-analysis of pregnancy outcomes in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and lupus nephritis. Clin J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010;5(11):2060-2068.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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