Background Lupus erythematosus (LE) is a chronic, autoimmune disease resulting from an interaction of genetic, environmental and hormonal factors and characterized by a spectrum of clinical forms with variable evolution from a localized cutaneous form to a life-threatening systemic form. Objective To analyse and compare the prevalence and characteristics of the main clinical and immunological manifestations of subacute cutaneous LE (SCLE) and chronic CLE (CCLE). Methods A total of 270 patients with CLE (112 patients with SCLE and 158 patients with CCLE) were studied retrospectively. The clinical and serological characteristics of all the patients were collected in a chart review. Results The patients with SCLE had a higher prevalence of annular and papulosquamous lesions, Raynaud phenomenon, mucous membrane ulcers, malar rashes, photosensitivity, vasculitis and a lower frequency of discoid lesions and alopecia compared with patients with CCLE. Patients with SCLE had a higher prevalence of arthralgias (P < 0.001), xerophthalmia (P = 0.045), arthritis (P < 0.001), nephropathy (P = 0.003) and systemic LE (SLE) (P < 0.001) compared with patients with CCLE. Patients with SCLE also had a higher frequency of laboratory and serological abnormalities than patients with CCLE. Generalized discoid LE (DLE) was associated with a higher prevalence of photosensitivity (P < 0.001), panniculitis (P = 0.009) and SLE (P = 0.003) than localized DLE. In patients with SCLE and those with CCLE, photosensitivity, arthralgias, arthritis, nephropathy and xerophthalmia were associated with SLE. In patients with SCLE, significant correlations existed between clinical and immunological data. Conclusions In our series, differences in the expression of CCLE and SCLE were found with respect to the distribution and type of lesions, systemic features and immunological findings.