Most people with lupus experience some sort of skin involvement during the course of their disease. In fact, skin conditions comprise 4 of the 11 criteria used by the American College of Rheumatology for classifying lupus. There are three major types of skin disease specific to lupus and various other non-specific skin manifestautions associated with the disease.
Lupus-Specific Skin Disease
Three forms of specific skin disease occur in people with lupus, and it is possible to have lesions of multiple types. In addition, a person can also have one of the three forms outlined below without actually having full-blown systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but the presence of one of these disease forms may increase a person’s risk of developing SLE later in life. Usually, a skin biopsy is used to diagnose forms of cutaneous lupus, and various medications are available for treatment, including steroid ointments, corticosteroids (e.g., prednisone), and antimalarials (e.g., Plaquenil).
Chronic Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (CCLE) / Discoid Lupus Erythematosus (DLE)
Chronic cutaneous (discoid) lupus erythematosus is usually diagnosed when someone exhibits signs of lupus in the skin. People with SLE can also have discoid lesions, and about 5% of all people with DLE will develop SLE later in life. A skin biopsy is used to diagnose this condition, and the lesions have a characteristic pattern known to clinicians: they are thick and scaly, plug the hair follicles, appear usually on surfaces of the skin exposed to sun (but can occur in non-exposed areas), tend to scar, and usually do not itch.
If you are diagnosed with discoid lupus, you should try to avoid sun exposure when possible and wear sunscreen with Helioplex and an SPF of 70 or higher. In addition, you doctor may prescribe medications to help prevent and curb inflammation, including steroid ointments, pills, or injections , antimalarial medications such as Plaquenil, and/or immunosuppressive medications.
Subacute Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (SCLE)
About 10% of lupus patients have SCLE. The lesions characteristic of this condition usually do not scar, do not appear thick and scaly, and usually do not itch. About half of all people with SCLE will also fulfill the criteria for systemic lupus. Treatment can be tricky because SCLE lesions often resist treatments with steroid creams and antimalarials. People with SCLE should be sure to put on sunscreen and protective clothing when going outdoors in order to avoid sun exposure, which may trigger the development of more lesions.
Acute Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (ACLE)
Most people with ACLE have active SLE with skin inflammation, and ACLE lesions are found in about half of all people with SLE at some point during the course of the disease. The lesions characteristic of ACLE usually occur in areas exposed to the sun and can be triggered by sun exposure. Therefore, it is very important that people with ACLE wear sunscreen and protective clothing when going outdoors.
Common Lupus Skin Problems
About half of all lupus patients experience a characteristic rash called the malar or “butterfly” rash that may occur spontaneously or after exposure to the sun. This rash is so-named because it resembles a butterfly, spanning the width of the face and covering both cheeks and the bridge of the nose. The malar rash appears red, elevated, and sometimes scaly and can be distinguished from other rashes because it spares the nasal folds (the spaces just under each side of your nose). The butterfly rash may appear on its own, but some people observe that the appearance of the malar rash indicates an oncoming disease flare. Whatever the case, it is important to pay attention to your body’s signals and notify your physician of anything unusual.
50% of all people with lupus experience sensitivity to sunlight and other sources of UV radiation, including artificial lighting. For many people, sun exposure causes exaggerated sunburn-like reactions and skin rashes, yet sunlight can precipitate lupus flares involving other parts of the body. For this reason, sun protection is very important for people with lupus. Since both UV-A and UV-B rays are known to cause activation of lupus, patients should wear sunscreen containing Helioplex and an SPF of 70 or higher. Sunscreen should be applied everywhere, including areas of your skin covered by clothing, since most clothing items contain an SPF of only about 5. Be sure to reapply as directed on the bottle, since sweat and prolonged exposure can cause coverage to dissipate.
People with lupus may experience a lacy pattern under the skin called livedo reticularis. This pattern may range anywhere from a violet web just under the surface of the skin to something that looks like a reddish stain. Livedo can also be seen in babies and young women, is more prominent on the extremities, and is often accentuated by cold exposure. The presence of livedo is usually not a cause for alarm, but it can be associated with antiphospholipid antibodies.
About 70% of people with lupus will experience hair loss (alopecia) at some point during the course of the disease. Hair loss in lupus is usually characterized by dry, brittle hair that breaks, and hair loss is more common around the top of the forehead. Physical and mental stress can also cause hair loss, as can certain medications, including corticosteroids such as prednisone. In many cases the hair will grow back, but hair loss due to scarring from discoid skin lesions may be permanent. There is no cure-all for hair loss, but treatments such as topical steroids and Rogaine may be prescribed. Sometimes dealing with the cosmetic side effects of lupus can be difficult, but some people find using hairpieces and wigs to be an effective means of disguising hair loss.
Oral and Nasal Ulcers
About 25% of people with lupus experience lesions that affect the mouth, nose, and sometimes even the eyes. These lesions may feel like small ulcers or “canker sores.” Such sores are not dangerous but can be uncomfortable if not treated. If you experience these types of lesions, your doctor may give you special mouthwash or Kenalog in Orabase (triamcinolone dental paste) to help expedite the healing process.
Approximately one-third of all people with lupus experience a condition called Raynaud’s phenomenon in which the blood vessels supplying the fingers and toes constrict. The digits of people with Raynaud’s are especially susceptible to cold temperatures. Often people with the condition will experience a blanching (loss of color) in the digits, followed by blue, then red discoloration in temperatures that would only be mildly uncomfortable to other people (such as a highly air-conditioned room). It is very important that people with Raynaud’s wear gloves and socks when in air-conditioned spaces or outside in cool weather. Hand warmers used for winter sports (e.g., Hot Hands) can also be purchased and kept in your pockets to keep your hands warm. These measures are very important, since Raynaud’s phenomenon can cause ulceration and even tissue death of the fingers and toes if precautions are not taken. People have even lost the ends of their fingers and toes due to the poor circulation involved in Raynaud’s phenomenon. Cigarettes and caffeine can exacerbate the effects of Raynaud’s, so be sure to avoid these substances. If needed, your doctor may also recommend a calcium channel blocker medication such as nifedipine or amlodipine to help dilate your blood vessels.
About 10% of all people with lupus will experience hives (urticaria). These lesions usually itch, and even though people often experience hives due to allergic reactions, hives lasting more than 24 hours are likely due to lupus. If you experience this condition, be sure to speak with your doctor, since s/he will want to be sure that the lesions are not caused by some other underlying condition, such as vasculitis or a reaction to medication. Your doctor will probably distinguish these lesions from those caused by vasculitis by touching them to see if they blanch (turn white).
Approximately 15% of people with lupus will experience purpura (small red or purple discolorations caused by leaking of blood vessels just underneath the skin) during the course of the disease. Small purpura spots are called petechiae, and larger spots are called eccymoses. Purpura may indicate insufficient blood platelet levels, effects of medications, and other conditions.
Some people with lupus may develop a condition known as cutaneous vasculitis, in which the blood vessels near the skin experience inflammation that ultimately restricts blood flow. This condition can cause hive-like lesions on the skin that may itch and do not turn white when depressed. Other skin abnormalities may also be present, including actual gangrene of the digits. If left untreated, vasculitic lesions may cause ulceration and necrosis (cell death), and dead tissue must be surgically removed. Rarely, fingers or toes with aggressive ulceration and gangrene may require amputation. Therefore, it is very important that you notify your doctor of any skin abnormalities.