Premature coronary heart disease (CHD) has emerged as a major cause of morbidity and mortality in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Overall SLE patients have a 5-6-fold increased risk of CHD and this excess risk is especially pronounced in younger women where the excess risk may be >50-fold. Studies from our group and others have also demonstrated that SLE patients have a higher prevalence of subclinical atherosclerosis compared with controls, with approximately 30% having evidence of subclinical involvement. It is important to consider what factors may underlie this excess risk. We have found that certain 'classic' risk factors, i.e. hypertension and diabetes mellitus, are more prevalent in SLE and that persistent hypercholesterolaemia independently predicts patients who will develop CHD. These risk factors alone do not completely explain the excess risk observed, and after adjusting for classic risk factors SLE remains independently associated with both clinical and subclinical outcomes. Certain other metabolic changes also occur more frequently in SLE, namely premature menopause, renal impairment, high triglycerides and higher plasma homocysteine. In addition, insulin resistance is more pronounced in patients with SLE, and approximately 18% have the metabolic syndrome. It is also increasingly accepted that atherosclerosis is a chronic inflammatory condition, and in SLE systemic complement activation as well as immune complex formation can result in changes that promote the development of atheroma. Similarly, autoantibody production, especially antibodies directed against lipoprotein subtypes and those in the antiphospholipid (APLA) family, are gaining increasing attention. The role of the latter are particularly controversial as different subtypes have been shown to both promote and protect against atherogenesis. In a study looking at carotid plaque in SLE, we found that APLA was independently associated with the presence of plaque; this study also found that patients with plaque had higher white cell counts, suggesting ongoing chronic inflammation. We have also noted a negative correlation between activation of transforming growth factor beta-1 and carotid intima-medial thickness. This cytokine, which is known to be a potent anti-inflammatory molecule, has also been shown to be protective against atherogenesis. With regard to therapy, steroids may be a true double-edged sword, with low doses exerting a beneficial anti-inflammatory role whereas higher doses may be detrimental through exacerbation of metabolic risk factors. In contrast, we have found that antimalarials have a beneficial effect on lipids especially when co-prescribed with steroids, and this, along with anti-inflammatory and proposed antiplatelet effects, may confer protection against CHD in lupus. The risk of premature CHD in SLE is therefore mediated by a number of factors that involve not only classic risk factors but also a range of factors associated with SLE itself. Preventative strategies will therefore need to address all potential risk factors of relevance. A more through understanding of the interplay between autoimmunity and atherogenesis should be possible by the study of SLE, and this may not only benefit lupus patients but also may have implications for our understanding of atherosclerosis in general.