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Subacute Cutaneous Lupus Erythematosus (SCLE) Workup

  • Author: Janice Lin, MD, MPH; Chief Editor: William D James, MD  more...
Updated: Mar 07, 2016

Approach Considerations

In order to ensure proper diagnosis, relevant clinical history, detailed skin and physical examinations, laboratory tests, serologic tests, and skin biopsy should be used. It is important to classify cutaneous lupus skin lesions correctly when possible and evaluate for any evidence of systemic involvement.


Laboratory Studies

The extent of laboratory workup should be individualized and based on the level of suspicion for systemic involvement, as follows:

  • Complete blood cell (CBC) count to evaluate for hematologic abnormalities, including anemia, leukopenia, and/or thrombocytopenia
  • Renal function test and urinalysis to evaluate for evidence of proteinuria and renal insufficiency.
  • Antibody testing first with ANA, then other autoantibodies (including but not limited to dsDNA, Ro, La, Sm, ribosomal P) when systemic lupus erythematosus is suspected
  • Complement level (C3 and C4)



Serologic Testing

As mentioned, most patients with subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE) manifest a positive antinuclear antibody (ANA) when tested with human substrates. HEp-2 cells are the substrate used most commonly in commercial laboratories. In a multicenter study, 70% of patients with SCLE were found to have positive ANA and only 5% had positive dsDNA.[22]

Anti-Ro (SS-A) autoantibodies are present in a high proportion of patients, as follows:

  • Annular SCLE - 90%
  • Papulosquamous SCLE - 80-85%
  • SCLE with vasculitis, Sjögren syndrome, or C2d deficiency - Greater than 95%
  • Mothers of infants with neonatal lupus erythematosus (NLE) - Greater than 90%
  • Drug-induced SCLE - 70-80%

Anti-La (SS-B) autoantibodies are often present, but in a lower percentage of patients (typically < 50%). Antinative DNA (double-stranded or nDNA) antibodies usually reflect systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), but may occur in up to 12% of patients with SCLE. It is also possible to have negative ANA but positive anti-Ro antibody in SCLE patients.[21]


Biopsy and Histologic Findings

Characteristic histopathologic alterations observed in subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus (SCLE) include (1) vacuolar alteration of the basal cell layer and (2) an inflammatory cell infiltrate (usually lymphocytic) around vessels (perivascular), around appendiceal structures (periappendiceal), and in a subepidermal location. Epidermal changes, such as atrophy, are common, but follicular plugging is less frequent than in patients with discoid lupus erythematosus (DLE). An abundance of mucin often is seen within the dermis.

Histopathologic features differ depending on the type and age of the lesion. For example, papulosquamous lesions of SCLE are much more likely to manifest diagnostic findings than are annular lesions of SCLE.

Occasionally, direct immunofluorescence (DIF) testing may aid in diagnosis. A positive lupus band test (LBT) is defined as findings of immunoglobulin and/or complement at the dermoepidermal junction. These deposits appear granular and contain IgG, IgM, and occasionally IgA.[23] Examination of tissue may be performed on skin lesions (lesional) or healthy skin (nonlesional). However, nonlesional positive LBTs can be seen in SLE, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren syndrome, and other autoimmune diseases.[24] In the majority of cases, clinical and histologic findings are sufficient to make the diagnosis of cutaneous lupus without the need for DIF testing.

The use and interpretation of these tests vary according to the site of biopsy. Only 60% of patients with SCLE test positive on lesional skin. Some, usually those with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), have a positive LBT.

Older lesions may be more likely to be negative on immunofluorescence microscopy. The frequency of positive tests also is affected by tissue handling techniques. Snap frozen tissue is less likely to be falsely positive than tissue sent to the laboratory in Michel transport media.

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Janice Lin, MD, MPH Clinical Instructor, Department of Immunology and Rheumatology, Stanford University School of Medicine

Janice Lin, MD, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American College of Rheumatology, Medical Dermatology Society, Rheumatologic 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

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD Associate Professor, Department of Dermatology, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine

Michael J Wells, MD, FAAD is a member of the following medical societies: Alpha Omega Alpha, American Academy of Dermatology, American Medical Association, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Lester F Libow, MD Dermatopathologist, South Texas Dermatopathology Laboratory

Lester F Libow, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Dermatology, American Society of Dermatopathology, Texas Medical Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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.

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Early lesions of subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus may simulate polymorphous light eruption.
Papulosquamous lesions of subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus may simulate psoriasis.
Annular lesions of subacute cutaneous lupus erythematosus.
Tumid lupus erythematosus.
Neonatal lupus erythematosus.
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