Lupus is a condition of the immune system that causes the body to mistake healthy tissue for a harmful intruder and attack it. Discoid lupus affects the skin, causing a red, scaly rash with raised borders on areas of the body that are exposed to sunlight.

The disease can damage any part of the body. It is defined as chronic, meaning that symptoms occur for a long time or happen repeatedly.

In this article, we look at the symptoms of discoid lupus, along with its causes and risk factors. We also examine what can be done to diagnose, treat, and prevent the disease.

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Discoid lupus affects the skin and may appear on the neck, back of the hands, and face.
Image credit: Leonard C. Sperling, M.D., Department of Dermatology, Uniformed Services University, 2009

Research by The National Resource Center on Lupus estimates that at least 1.5 million Americans have lupus.

Systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, is the most common form of lupus, affecting joints, muscles, various tissues, and organs in the body.

Cutaneous lupus erythematosus, or CLE, refers to forms of lupus that affect the skin, causing rashes and sores.

Discoid lupus is the most common type of CLE. It is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system mistakenly identifies its own tissue as foreign and mounts an attack.

A healthy immune system will fight off viruses and bacteria that can cause illness. With discoid lupus, the immune system attacks healthy skin, causing sores that appear as a disc-shaped rash.

Discoid sores present as a distinctive thick, scaly rash, ranging in color from red to purple.

The rash can appear in one place or a number of areas on the body. It is most likely to appear on areas of the skin that are regularly exposed to sunlight, such as the face, neck, and backs of the hands.

There are usually no other symptoms, but some people may feel pain or an itch within the sores.

There are other skin conditions that can look very similar to discoid lupus, such as plaque psoriasis or eczema. It is important for people to see a doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

Like all forms of lupus, discoid lupus does not have one clear cause.

It is possible that hormones, genetic factors, and environmental triggers can all play a part in the development of the disease. Examples of environmental triggers include exposure to ultraviolet light and stress.

Groups of people who are more at risk of discoid lupus include:

  • people with a family history of lupus or other diseases of the immune system
  • women, who make up more than 90 percent of people with lupus
  • African-Americans, who are three times more at risk for lupus than Caucasians
  • 20-to-50-year olds
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Protecting the skin from the sun’s rays by using sunscreen is recommended.