Vasculitis, also known as “angiitis” and “arteritis”, is a blanket term for a collection of rare diseases that cause inflammation of the blood vessels. This inflammation causes the blood vessel walls to thicken and narrow. This compromises the vessels’ ability to carry oxygen-rich blood to the organ systems throughout the body and often leads to blood clots.
The symptoms and severity of vasculitis can vary from person to person, but left untreated, the condition can cause serious health issues.
What Causes Vasculitis?
Vasculitis occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks the blood vessels.
Primary vasculitis has no known cause, while secondary vasculitis may be triggered by certain medications or long-term infections like hepatitis B or hepatitis C. It may also develop in patients with co-existing autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma or lupus or in patients with blood cancers.
Vasculitis can affect a variety of organ symptoms, causing a wide range of symptoms, including:
- Joint pain
- Weight loss
- High blood pressure
- Blood in the urine
- General discomfort
- Night sweats
Patients with vasculitis may also experience numbness, weakness and other nerve-related issues, as well as problems with vision. In rare cases, vasculitis can lead to blindness. When the condition affects the skin (cutaneous vasculitis), patients may notice skin lesions or hemorrhages under the skin.
Risk Factors for Vasculitis
The most common risk factor for developing primary vasculitis is a genetic predisposition for the disease. The elderly are diagnosed more often than young people, but men and women are affected equally.
Risk factors for developing secondary vasculitis include cigarette smoking, a history of reactions to medication or a history of infections like hepatitis B or hepatitis C. Certain cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma, may also increase your risk.
Types of Vasculitis
A number of different diseases are considered forms of vasculitis, including:
- Kawasaki Disease
- Polyarteritis Nodosa
- Behcet’s Disease
- Buerger’s Disease
- Giant Cell Arteritis
- Lymphomatoid Granulomatosis
- Henoch-Schonlein Purpura
- Microscopic Polyangiitis
- Polymyalgia Rheumatica
Check out the National Organization for Rare Disorders for more information on the different forms of vasculitis.
How is Vasculitis Diagnosed?
Vasculitis is diagnosed using a combination of physical examination and laboratory tests. Blood tests are used to check for signs of inflammation, such as elevated levels of C-Reactive proteins. Urine tests check for high levels of protein or red blood cells. Your doctor may also request x-rays of your blood vessels or other imaging tests to see the extent of organs and blood vessels that are affected.
For individuals with vasculitis, effective treatments focus on reducing inflammation in the body. Once inflammation is controlled, your doctor will recommend therapies for preventing future flare ups.
Depending on your symptoms and the severity of your vasculitis, your doctor may recommend corticosteroids or immunosuppressant medications.