What is vasculitis?
Vasculitis is the inflammation of your blood vessels. It causes changes in the walls of the blood vessels, including thickening, weakening, narrowing, or scarring. These changes can restrict blood flow, which leads to organ and tissue damage.
There are several types of vasculitis, and most of them are rare. Vasculitis may affect one or several organs. Moreover, this condition can be either acute or chronic.
Vasculitis can affect anyone, although some types are more common within certain groups. It may improve without treatment, depending on which type you have. Some types require medications to control inflammation and prevent flare-ups.
What are the symptoms of vasculitis?
General signs and symptoms of vasculitis include:
- Headache and fever
- Appetite loss
- Weight loss
- General aches and pains
- Sweating at night
- Skin rash
- Heart attacks
- Kidney failure
- Nerve numbness or weakness
Other signs and symptoms are only associated with certain types of vasculitis. Symptoms can develop early and quickly or in the later stages of the disease.
- Behçet’s disease. This condition causes inflammation of the arteries and veins. Signs and symptoms include mouth and genital sores, eye inflammation, and acne-like lesions on the skin.
- Buerger’s disease. This condition causes inflammation and clots in the blood vessels in the hands and feet, resulting in pain and ulcers in these areas. Rarely, Buerger’s disease can affect the blood vessels in the abdomen, brain, and heart. It is also called persistent thrombophlebitis.
- Churg-Strauss syndrome. This condition is very rare. It mainly affects the lungs, skin, kidneys, heart, and nerves in your extremities. Signs and symptoms vary widely and include asthma, skin changes, nerve pain, and nasal allergies.
- Presence of cryoglobulins in the blood. This condition results from the presence of abnormal proteins in the blood. Signs and symptoms include rashes, joint pain, weakness, and numbness or tingling.
- Giant cell arteritis. This condition is an inflammation of the arteries in the head, especially at the temples. Giant cell arteritis can cause headaches, scalp pain, jaw pain, blurry or double vision, and blindness. It is also called temporal arteritis.
- Granulomas with vasculitis. This condition causes inflammation in the blood vessels of the nose, sinuses, throat, lungs, and kidneys. Signs and symptoms include a stuffy nose, sinus infections, nosebleeds, and possibly coughing up blood. But most people have no noticeable symptoms until the damage has reached an advanced stage.
- Hypersensitivity vasculitis. The primary sign of this condition, sometimes called allergic vasculitis, is red spots on your skin, usually on the lower legs. It can be triggered by an infection or an adverse reaction from any drug.
- Microscopic vasculitis. This type of vasculitis affects small blood vessels, usually those in the kidneys, lungs, or nerves. It can cause abdominal pain, rash, fever, muscle pain, and weight loss. If the lungs become infected with this condition, they may cough up blood.
- Multiple nodular arteritis. This type of vasculitis usually affects the kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, nerves, and skin. Signs and symptoms include a rash, a general feeling of being unwell, weight loss, muscle and joint pain, abdominal pain after eating, high blood pressure, muscle pain and weakness, and kidney problems.
- Takayasu’s arteritis. This type of vasculitis affects the large arteries in the body, including the aorta. Signs and symptoms include joint pain, lack of pulse, high blood pressure, night sweats, fever, a general feeling of malaise, loss of appetite, headaches, and vision changes.
What is the cause of vasculitis?
The exact cause of vasculitis is still unknown. Some types are related to a person’s genetic predisposition. Other types result from the immune system attacking blood vessel cells by mistake. Potential triggers of an immune system reaction include:
- Infections (Hepatitis B and C)
- Blood cancers
- Immune system diseases, such as lupus, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis
- Reactions to some medications
Vasculitis may cause blood vessels to bleed or become inflamed. Inflammation can cause the layers of the blood vessel wall to thicken. This causes blood vessels to narrow, which reduces the amount of blood – and thus oxygen and vital nutrients – that reaches the body’s tissues and organs.
How is vasculitis diagnosed?
Our rheumatologist will study your medical history and perform a physical exam. He may have you undergo one or more diagnostic tests and procedures to rule out other conditions that resemble vasculitis. Tests and procedures may include:
- Blood tests. These tests look for signs of inflammation, such as an elevated CRP level. A complete blood cell count can reveal whether you have enough red blood cells. Blood tests that look for specific antibodies, such as the neutrophil cytoplasmic antibody test, can help diagnose vasculitis.
- Urine tests. These tests may reveal whether your urine contains red blood cells or a large amount of protein, which may indicate a medical problem.
- Imaging tests. Non-invasive imaging techniques can help identify affected blood vessels and organs. It can also help your doctor monitor whether you are responding to treatment. Imaging tests for vasculitis include X-rays, ultrasound, computerized tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Biopsy. In this procedure, your doctor removes a small sample of tissue from the affected area of your body. Then your doctor examines these tissues to look for signs of vasculitis.
How is vasculitis treated?
Treatment mainly aims to control inflammation with medications and treating any underlying diseases that may have triggered the vasculitis. For your vasculitis, you may go through two phases of treatment. The first is aimed at stopping the inflammation and the second helps to prevent relapse.
Both phases involve prescription drugs. The type of medication and how long you need to take it depends on the type of vasculitis, the organs affected and the severity of your condition.