Clinical Review

Management of lupus flare

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If disease is handled quickly, mother and fetus usually fare well, but loss of mother, fetus, or both is not always avoidable



It was not that long ago that systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) was considered a contraindication to pregnancy. With improved understanding and improved treatment options, many women with SLE have successful pregnancies.

Still, lupus flare during pregnancy is a medical and obstetric emergency, and a persistent obstetric dilemma. The most difficult dilemma is how to differentiate a lupus flare from preeclampsia, as both may present with worsening blood pressure, proteinuria and deteriorating renal function, and edema.1

If anticipated and handled quickly, most outcomes will be good for mother and fetus, but occasional severe consequences of lupus flare resulting in loss of mother, fetus, or both, are not always avoidable.

90% of lupus cases are in reproductive-age women

SLE is an autoimmune disease that affects virtually all organ systems. Specific clinical and laboratory criteria must be met to establish the diagnosis. About 90% of all cases are in women in the reproductive age range, with an overrepresentation of African Americans. The overall prevalence of lupus is approximately 15 to 50 per 100,000 population (both sexes, all ages).

Counsel the patient, gauge the risks

The most important first step is the preconception visit. While early prenatal care is better than late presentation, the best option is a preconception visit so that the relative risks of pregnancy may be assessed and discussed, and alterations to medication regimens can be made prior to establishment of a pregnancy (TABLE 1).2

As lupus patients are at increased risk for early pregnancy loss, the preconception visit may also allow for identification of risk factors and risk assessment. A recent study3 proposed the acronym PATH to help identify high-risk patients:

Antiphospholipid syndrome


Factors that increase the likelihood of a good outcome

  • Disease quiescence for more than 6 months prior to conception
  • Normal renal function (creatinine less than 0.7 mg/dL, but not more than 1.2 mg/dL)
  • Normal preconception blood pressure, preferably without the need for antihypertensive medication
  • Minimal doses or no need for immunosuppressive therapy (prednisone less than or equal to 10 mg/day)
  • Absence of antiphospholipid antibodies/antiphospholipid syndrome
  • No history of adverse pregnancy outcome
  • No history of thrombosis (not a factor specific to lupus)

Disease quiescence is not an infallible sign

One of the better indicators of a favorable prognosis for pregnancy is disease quiescence for at least 6 months, and preferably more than 12 months, prior to conception. A number of factors go into the definition of “disease quiescence” including blood pressure control, need for immunosuppressive medication, renal function, and overall physician global assessment, to name but a few, and these factors will be briefly reviewed.

Renal disease and hypertension


Patients with SLE not infrequently have hypertension secondary to renal involvement, specifically lupus nephritis. Nephritis is generally the most serious of lupus manifestations, and if not aggressively treated can lead to nephrotic syndrome, edema and end-stage renal disease in more than 50% of patients within 2 to 3 years.4 Patients with this complication, especially in the setting of proliferative glomerulonephritis, have a poorer prognosis for pregnancy.

Accelerated atherosclerotic vascular disease may also affect these patients—in addition to nephritis—and may herald poor placental function and fetal growth.


When there is coexisting hypertension, antihypertensive agents that are safe for use in pregnancy are preferred, such as beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, and alpha methyldopa. Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers should be avoided during the second and third trimester due to adverse effects on fetal renal function.

Diagnosis of antiphospholipid syndrome

Patients with SLE may have associated antiphospholipid antibodies. Screening tests such as antinuclear antibodies (ANA) and activated partial thromboplastin times (aPTT) are not very reliable and have relatively poor positive predictive value, although in the case of ANA, when the diagnosis of lupus is suspected, repetitive negative ANA titers make SLE unlikely. Anti-double stranded DNA is quite specific to SLE, and elevations in the Anti-ds-DNA titers correlate well with SLE disease activity, and can be helpful in making the diagnosis of a lupus flare.

Other antibodies such as Anti-Ro (SS-A) and Anti-La (SS-B) may be useful for predicting and managing for neonatal lupus syndromes, but are not very useful in maternal management.

Additional tests for anticardiolipin, lupus anticoagulant (Russell viper venom test), and beta-2-glycoprotein are also of use.

Diagnosis of APLS requires positive serologies (at least twice, separated by a minimum of 2 weeks), thrombosis, and/or recurrent early pregnancy loss.

Does pregnancy bring on lupus flare?


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