Lupus can cause a variety of symptoms. Many people with the condition experience some skin involvement. A common symptom of lupus includes a rash that can affect most of the skin, including the arms.

Lupus is an autoimmune disorder that may involve many different parts of the body. It affects approximately 1.5 million Americans and occurs when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, resulting in widespread inflammation.

The most common type of lupus is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). This can affect multiple tissues and organ systems and cause a variety of potential symptoms.

A characteristic feature of the condition is a butterfly-shaped rash, known as a malar rash, which appears on the face. However, rashes, sores, and swelling can appear elsewhere on the body, such as on the arms. These changes often occur after certain triggers, such as exposure to sunlight.

This article explains what type of lupus rash may affect the arms and discusses where else a lupus rash may occur.

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Lupus refers to a group of conditions that can cause inflammation in different parts of the body. Health experts may use the term cutaneous lupus when referring to lupus that affects the skin.

Skin symptoms may last from a few days to years, depending on which type of lupus someone has. Evidence suggests that multiple factors, such as genetics, the environment, and immune responses, contribute to the skin symptoms of lupus.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association and the Lupus Foundation of America list the following types of lupus which may affect the skin on the arms:

  • Discoid lupus or chronic cutaneous lupus: This type can cause thick, scaly patches of skin, most often on the face, scalp, or ears, but some patches may develop elsewhere. The rash may cause scarring or changes in skin color.
  • Subacute cutaneous lupus: This type presents as a scaly or ring-like rash, usually on skin that someone has exposed to the sun, such as the neck and arms. A person may mistake the rash for psoriasis or eczema.
  • Acute cutaneous lupus: This form commonly causes a butterfly rash on the face but sometimes affects other body parts, such as the arms or legs. The rash usually appears after being out in the sun and may clear up without scarring. However, people may experience a darker patch of skin after the rash disappears.
  • Lupus erythematosus tumidus (LET): This may cause firm, raised patches and bumps to develop on the skin. Research from 2019 suggests this is an uncommon condition that occurs following sun exposure. LET does not typically result in long-term skin damage as lesions heal without scarring or pigmentation.
  • Lupus panniculitis or lupus profundus: This is a rarer form of lupus occurring in 1–3% of people with cutaneous lupus erythematosus. It affects the deepest layer of skin, where deep lumps and hollows may form.
  • Drug-induced lupus erythematosus (DILE): This is a lupus-like disease that occurs when someone takes certain medications for months or years. DILE usually resolves when a person stops taking the causative medication. The condition can affect the organs or skin, with symptoms dependent on the type of drug causing it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise that someone with lupus may get rashes on any part of their body that they expose to the sun, such as the face, arms, and hands. Additionally, the CDC notes that a common skin symptom of lupus is a butterfly-shaped rash across the nose and cheeks.

Lupus symptoms may differ from person to person, and someone may have periods of flare-up and remission. Other possible symptoms of lupus may include:

Currently, there is no cure for any type of lupus, including the types that affect the skin. However, if medication causes lupus-like symptoms, a doctor may be able to recommend an alternative drug to prevent symptoms.

To help treat cutaneous lupus, a healthcare professional may recommend a combination of medications and lifestyle changes. The medications a doctor suggests may vary depending on the kind of cutaneous lupus a person has and how severe or widespread it is. These can include:

  • steroid ointments
  • topical calcineurin inhibitors
  • antimalarial drugs
  • low dose methotrexate or anti-inflammatory medication, such as dapsone

Additionally, it may be advisable to use the following strategies to help prevent or ease some symptoms:

  • using a broad-spectrum sunscreen
  • using clothing to protect the skin
  • trying to avoid direct sunlight
  • using light shields if indoor lighting also triggers symptoms

Lupus can cause a variety of symptoms, including rashes and other skin issues. These rashes can affect most areas, including the arms. When lupus involves a person’s skin, a healthcare professional may refer to it as cutaneous lupus.

Sun exposure can often trigger these skin changes. This is why it is advisable for those with lupus to cover up and use sunscreen. A doctor may also prescribe medications to help an individual manage skin symptoms of lupus.