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Discoid Lupus Erythematosus Workup

  • Author: A Brooke W Eastham, MD; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Updated: Feb 26, 2016

Approach Considerations

Screening for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) should occur upon diagnosis of discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE). This should consist of a thorough history and physical examination, as well as standard laboratory screening including complete blood cell count, renal function tests, and urinalysis. Hematologic and serologic abnormalities may be present and an elevated sedimentation rate may occur in some patients. Additionally, rheumatoid factor may be positive and complement levels may be decreased. Abnormal renal function tests and/or urinalysis with proteinuria may reflect the presence of renal involvement.

Some patients with DLE (approximately 20%) manifest a positive antinuclear antibody (ANA) when tested with human substrates. HEp-2 cells currently are the most common substrate used in commercial laboratories.

Anti-Ro (SS-A) autoantibodies are present in approximately 1-3% of patients. Antinative deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA, either double-stranded or nDNA) or anti-Sm antibodies usually reflect SLE, and they may occur in some patients (< 5%).


Other Tests

Deposition of immunoglobulin and/or complement at the dermoepidermal junction is a characteristic feature of lupus erythematosus referred to in most texts and articles. Tissue may be examined from skin lesions (lesional) or normal skin (nonlesional). Nonlesional biopsies may be from photoexposed or nonexposed surfaces. Testing of nonlesional, nonexposed skin is termed the lupus band test (LBT).

The use and interpretation of these tests vary according to the biopsy site. Approximately 90% of patients with discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) manifest a positive direct immunofluorescence (DIF) test on lesional skin; however, the presence of immunoreactants in the basement membrane zone of lesional skin is not specific for lupus and can be seen in a variety of inflammatory skin diseases. Older lesions or very early lesions may be more likely to be negative on immunofluorescence microscopy.

Only patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) have a positive LBT, defined as the presence of multiple immunoreactants in the basement membrane zone. The LBT is neither sensitive nor specific and has mostly been replaced by advances in serologic testing.


Histologic Findings

The characteristic histopathologic alterations observed in discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE) include the following:

  • Vacuolar alteration of the basal cell layer
  • Thickening of the basement membrane
  • Follicular plugging
  • Hyperkeratosis
  • Atrophy of the epidermis
  • Incontinence of pigment
  • Inflammatory cell infiltrate (usually lymphocytic) in a perivascular, periappendageal, and subepidermal location

Often, an abundance of mucin is seen within the dermis. The histopathologic features differ depending on the type and age of the lesion.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

A Brooke W Eastham, MD Board Certified Dermatologist, Nashville Skin and Cancer

A Brooke W Eastham, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, Medical Dermatology Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Jeffrey P Callen, MD Professor of Medicine (Dermatology), Chief, Division of Dermatology, University of Louisville School of Medicine

Jeffrey P Callen, MD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology

Disclosure: Received income in an amount equal to or greater than $250 from: XOMA; Biogen/IDEC; Novartis; Janssen Biotech, Abbvie, CSL pharma<br/>Received honoraria from UpToDate for author/editor; Received honoraria from JAMA Dermatology for associate editor and intermittent author; Received royalty from Elsevier for book author/editor; Received dividends from trust accounts, but I do not control these accounts, and have directed our managers to divest pharmaceutical stocks as is fiscally prudent from Stock holdings in various trust accounts include some pharmaceutical companies and device makers for i inherited these trust accounts; for: Celgene; Pfizer; 3M; Johnson and Johnson; Merck; Abbott Laboratories; AbbVie; Procter and Gamble; Amgen.

Ruth Ann Vleugels, MD, MPH Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Harvard Medical School; Associate Physician, Department of Dermatology, Brigham and Women's Hospital; Associate Physician, Department of Immunology and Allergy, Children's Hospital Boston

Ruth Ann Vleugels, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Rheumatology, American Medical Association, Society for Investigative Dermatology, Medical Dermatology Society, Dermatology Foundation

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

David F Butler, MD Section Chief of Dermatology, Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System; Professor of Dermatology, Texas A&M University College of Medicine; Founding Chair, Department of Dermatology, Scott and White Clinic

David F Butler, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Medical Association, Alpha Omega Alpha, Association of Military Dermatologists, American Academy of Dermatology, American Society for Dermatologic Surgery, American Society for MOHS Surgery, Phi Beta Kappa

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Julia R Nunley, MD Professor, Program Director, Dermatology Residency, Department of Dermatology, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center

Julia R Nunley, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American College of Physicians, American Society of Nephrology, International Society of Nephrology, Medical Dermatology Society, Medical Society of Virginia, National Kidney Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa, Women's Dermatologic Society

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: American Board of Dermatology<br/>Co-Editor for the text Dermatological Manifestations of Kidney Disease .

Chief Editor

William D James, MD Paul R Gross Professor of Dermatology, Vice-Chairman, Residency Program Director, Department of Dermatology, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

William D James, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Craig A Elmets, MD Professor and Chair, Department of Dermatology, Director, Chemoprevention Program Director, Comprehensive Cancer Center, UAB Skin Diseases Research Center, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine

Craig A Elmets, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Association of Immunologists, American College of Physicians, American Federation for Medical Research, Society for Investigative Dermatology

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: University of Alabama at Birmingham; University of Alabama Health Services Foundation<br/>Serve(d) as a speaker or a member of a speakers bureau for: Ferndale Laboratories<br/>Received research grant from: NIH, Veterans Administration, California Grape Assn<br/>Received consulting fee from Astellas for review panel membership; Received salary from Massachusetts Medical Society for employment; Received salary from UpToDate for employment. for: Astellas.

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Discoid lupus erythematosus on the face.
Chronic scarred lesion of discoid lupus erythematosus.
Lesions of discoid lupus erythematosus in the conchal bowl demonstrate patulous follicles with follicular plugging.
Palmar lesions of discoid lupus erythematosus.
Scarring alopecia of discoid lupus erythematosus.
Widespread scarring alopecia.
Hypertrophic lesions of chronic cutaneous lupus erythematosus on the dorsal hands. Characteristic lesions were observed elsewhere.
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