Vasculitis involves inflammation of the blood vessels. The inflammation can cause the walls of the blood vessels to thicken, which reduces the width of the passageway through the vessel. If blood flow is restricted, it can result in organ and tissue damage.
There are many types of vasculitis, and most of them are rare. Vasculitis might affect just one organ, or several. The condition can be short term or long lasting.
Vasculitis can affect anyone, though some types are more common among certain age groups. Depending on the type you have, you may improve without treatment. Most types require medications to control the inflammation and prevent flare-ups.
General signs and symptoms of most types of vasculitis include:
- Weight loss
- General aches and pains
Other signs and symptoms are related to the parts of the body affected, including:
- Digestive system. If your stomach or intestines are affected, you may experience pain after eating. Ulcers and perforations are possible and may result in blood in the stool.
- Ears. Dizziness, ringing in the ears and abrupt hearing loss may occur.
- Eyes. Vasculitis can make your eyes look red and itch or burn. Giant cell arteritis can cause double vision and temporary or permanent blindness in one or both eyes. This is sometimes the first sign of the disease.
- Hands or feet. Some types of vasculitis can cause numbness or weakness in a hand or foot. The palms of the hands and soles of the feet might swell or harden.
- Lungs. You may develop shortness of breath or even cough up blood if vasculitis affects your lungs.
- Skin. Bleeding under the skin can show up as red spots. Vasculitis can also cause lumps or open sores on your skin.
When to see a doctor
Make an appointment with your doctor if you have any signs or symptoms that worry you. Some types of vasculitis can worsen quickly, so early diagnosis is the key to getting effective treatment.
The exact cause of vasculitis isn't fully understood. Some types are related to a person's genetic makeup. Others result from the immune system attacking blood vessel cells by mistake. Possible triggers for this immune system reaction include:
- Infections, such as hepatitis B and hepatitis C
- Blood cancers
- Immune system diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and scleroderma
- Reactions to certain drugs
Vasculitis can happen to anyone. Factors that may increase the risk of certain disorders include:
- Age. Giant cell arteritis rarely occurs before the age of 50, while Kawasaki disease is most common in children younger than 5 years old.
- Family history. Behcet's disease, granulomatosis with polyangiitis and Kawasaki disease sometimes run in families.
- Lifestyle choices. Using cocaine can increase your risk of developing vasculitis. Smoking tobacco, especially if you're a man younger than 45, can increase your risk of Buerger's disease.
- Medications. Vasculitis can sometimes be triggered by medications such as hydralazine, allopurinol, minocycline and propylthiouracil.
- Infections. Having hepatitis B or C can increase your risk of vasculitis.
- Immune disorders. People who have disorders in which their immune systems mistakenly attack their own bodies may be at higher risk of vasculitis. Examples include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma.
- Sex. Giant cell arteritis is much more common in women, while Buerger's disease is more common in men.
Vasculitis complications depend on the type and severity of your condition. Or they may be related to side effects of the prescription medications you use to treat the condition. Complications of vasculitis include:
- Organ damage. Some types of vasculitis can be severe, causing damage to major organs.
- Blood clots and aneurysms. A blood clot may form in a blood vessel, obstructing blood flow. Rarely, vasculitis will cause a blood vessel to weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm (AN-yoo-riz-um).
- Vision loss or blindness. This is a possible complication of untreated giant cell arteritis.
- Infections. Some of the medications used to treat vasculitis may weaken your immune system. This can make you more prone to infections.