Discoid Lupus Erythematosus Primarily Affects Your Skin

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Discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) is a form of lupus that mainly affects your skin. DLE is different from systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common form of lupus, which can affect any part of the body. 

Discoid lupus is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the skin. If you have discoid lupus, you may develop chronic inflammatory sores on your face, ears, scalp, and other areas of the body. These lesions can be crusty and scaling, and they often scar. If lesions and scarring are on your scalp, hair regrowth may be impossible in those areas.

Discoid lupus is thought to result from a combination of genetic factors, environmental factors—especially sun exposure—and hormonal factors. Women are three times more likely to develop discoid lupus, and if discoid lupus runs in your family, your risk is increased too.

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Chronic discoid lupus erythematosus
Discoid lupus on a child's face. DermNet / CC BY-NC-ND

The Difference Between Discoid Lupus and Systemic Lupus

Lupus erythematosus (LE) diseases fall on a spectrum—discoid lupus is at one end and systemic lupus is at the other. Although discoid lupus is more benign than systemic lupus, skin symptoms tend to be more severe in DLE.

In SLE, a malar rash in a butterfly pattern may appear across the nose and cheeks of the patients, or red rashes may develop in reaction to sunlight. It's possible for discoid lupus to spread to your internal organs, although this is rare. Once the disease moves to internal organs, it becomes SLE.

About 1% to 5% of discoid lupus patients go on to develop SLE. If you have discoid lupus, you will need to routinely check in with your healthcare provider to make sure only your skin is involved.

Diagnosis and Treatment

If your healthcare provider suspects you have systemic lupus, they will first run blood tests. If that's ruled out, a skin biopsy may be used to diagnose discoid lupus. When discoid lupus is treated early and effectively, skin lesions can clear up completely. Without effective treatment, permanent scarring may result.

Discoid lupus may be treated with topical corticosteroids, such as cortisone ointment; topical calcineurin inhibitors, like pimecrolimus cream or tacrolimus ointment; and corticosteroid (cortisone) injections. 

If topical treatments don't work for you and your lesions are too widespread for corticosteroid injections, you may be prescribed antimalarial tablets such as hydroxychloroquine, chloroquine, and quinacrine. Taking these antimalarials can cause vision problems, so you'll need a baseline eye exam and periodic eye exams going forward.

In rare cases, when none of these approaches work, your healthcare provider may suggest more aggressive medications, such as methotrexate, acitretin, isotretinoin, mycophenolate mofetil, or dapsone.

If you've been diagnosed with discoid lupus, you'll also need to avoid sun exposure, wear hats and sun-protective clothing, and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF higher than 30. Smoking is also associated with discoid lupus, so quitting smoking should be a priority for you.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Skonieczna K, Czajkowski R, Kaszewski S, Gawrych M, Jakubowska A, Grzybowski T. Genetic similarities and differences between discoid and systemic lupus erythematosus patients within the Polish populationPostepy Dermatol Alergol. 2017;34(3):228–232. doi:10.5114/pdia.2017.67479

  2. Provost TT. The Relationship Between Discoid and Systemic Lupus ErythematosusArchives of Dermatology. 1994;130(10):1308. doi:10.1001/archderm.1994.01690100092016

Additional Reading
  • Definition of Discoid lupus. MedicineNet.com.
  • Discoid Lupus Erythematosus. American Osteopathic College of Dermatology.
  • Initial management of discoid lupus and subacute cutaneous lupus. UpToDate. May 28, 2015.
  • Management of refractory discoid lupus and subacute cutaneous lupus. UpToDate. October 22, 2015.
  • Panjwani, S. (2009). Early Diagnosis and Treatment of Discoid Lupus Erythematosus. Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

By Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH
Jeri Jewett-Tennant, MPH, is a medical writer and program development manager at the Center for Reducing Health Disparities.