The Vasculitis Foundation is committed to educating patients, family members and the general public about vasculitis. Early diagnosis is important, and although some forms of vasculitis improve on their own, most require treatment and follow-up medical care.
Vasculitis is a family of nearly 20 rare diseases characterized by inflammation of the blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and damage vital organs and tissues. Vasculitis is classified as an autoimmune disorder, which occurs when the body’s natural defense system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. Triggers may include infection, medication, genetic or environmental factors, allergic reactions, or another disease. However, the exact cause is often unknown.
Different forms of vasculitis may share similar symptoms and treatment courses, however each disease is distinct. The Vasculitis Foundation encourages every patient to learn about their “specific” disease form, and vasculitis in general. Our resource library contains a wealth of information about how to effectively manage your vasculitis and live well.
The Vasculitis Foundation works with vasculitis experts and vasculitis centers around the world to ensure patients have access to the most up-to-date information and medical care.
Vasculitis is a general term that refers to inflammation of the blood vessels. It is used to describe a family of nearly 20 rare diseases, characterized by narrowing, weakening or scarring of the blood vessels, which can restrict blood flow and damage vital organs and tissues.
Vasculitis can affect any of the blood vessels of the body, including arteries, veins and capillaries. Symptoms depend on the organs and tissues affected, and can vary from person to person. Some forms of the disease are mild and may improve on their own, while others involve critical organ systems and may require lifelong medical care. Early diagnosis and treatment are extremely important to avoid potentially life-threatening complications.
It is common for people with vasculitis to experience periods of relapse and remission, so regular doctor visits and follow-up monitoring are recommended. Proper treatment and ongoing medical care can improve the quality of life and prognosis for people with vasculitis.
The cause of vasculitis is not fully understood by researchers. Vasculitis is classified as an autoimmune disorder, which occurs when the body’s natural defense system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. Researchers believe a combination of factors may trigger the inflammatory process, including infections, medications, genetic or environmental factors, allergic reactions, or another disease. However, the exact cause is usually unknown.
Vasculitis can affect people of all ages and races, although some forms may be more common among certain age or ethnic groups. Vasculitis usually, but not always, affects women and men in equal numbers.
There are many types of vasculitis, which are classified by the size and location of affected blood vessels. Your doctor will help determine the type of vasculitis you have and the most appropriate treatment.
MOST COMMON TYPES OF VASCULITIS (Classified by vessel size)
Small- and medium-sized vessel
Arteries of various sizes
Vasculitis symptoms vary from patient to patient and depend on the type of vasculitis and affected tissues and organs. Symptoms may include:
- Muscle and/or joint pain
- Lack of appetite/weight loss
- Rashes or skin lesions
- Eye pain and redness/blurred vision
- Chronic nasal, ear and/or sinus problems
- Shortness of breath
- Cough (or coughing up blood)
- Abdominal pain
- Severe headaches
- Nerve problems, such as numbness, weakness, pain (neuropathy)
- Bloody or dark-colored urine, potentially indicating kidney problems (Note: A patient can have kidney disease without having symptoms; therefore, patients with vasculitis of any form should have regular urine tests.)
Serious vasculitis complications can occur, especially if the disease goes undiagnosed or untreated. Depending on the type of vasculitis and severity of condition, complications can include organ damage or failure; blood clots; an aneurysm (an abnormal bulging of a weakened blood vessel that can burst); heart problems; vision loss; and neuropathy, among others. If you have the above symptoms, or others that you are concerned about, report them to your doctor as soon as possible.
Diagnosing vasculitis can pose a challenge because the symptoms may be similar to those caused by other illnesses or diseases. Your doctor will take a detailed medical history and perform a physical exam. Depending on symptoms and the type of vasculitis suspected, your doctor may order laboratory work such as urinalysis and blood tests; imaging studies such as X-rays, computed tomography (CT), or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans; lung function tests; or biopsy, when indicated.
A biopsy involves surgical removal of a small sample of affected organ or tissue, which is analyzed for signs of inflammation or tissue damage. A biopsy is usually obtained to confirm diagnosis, however it is not always feasible. In addition, a positive biopsy is not always a requirement to confirm the diagnosis before starting treatment.
Treatment is based on numerous factors including the specific type of vasculitis, symptoms, organs affected, disease severity, lab results, age, overall health and more. It is essential to work closely with your doctor in developing a comprehensive treatment plan.
Treatment usually involves two phases: controlling the inflammation to achieve remission, and maintenance treatment to prevent relapse. Common treatments include the following:
- Corticosteroids such as prednisone are often the first line of treatment for vasculitis, to reduce inflammation.
- For more serious forms of vasculitis, medications that suppress the immune system are often prescribed, including methotrexate, azathioprine, mycophenolate mofetil, and cyclophosphamide.
- Biologic agents such as rituximab, tocilizumab, and mepolizumab may be prescribed for specific types of vasculitis. Biologic medications are complex proteins derived from living organisms. They target certain parts of the immune system to control inflammation.
- For very severe cases, other additional treatments include plasmapheresis (plasma exchange), intravenous gamma globulin, or surgery to restore blood flow.
All the medications used to treat vasculitis have side effects. These including lowering your body’s ability to fight infection, potential bone loss (osteoporosis), and others. Your doctor may prescribe medications to offset these side effects. Infection prevention is also very important. Talk to your doctor about getting a flu shot, pneumonia vaccination, and/or shingles vaccination, which can reduce your risk of infection.
Even with effective treatment, relapses of vasculitis are common. Regular doctor visits and ongoing monitoring of lab and imaging tests are important in detecting relapses early.
Effective treatment of vasculitis often requires the coordinated efforts and ongoing care of a team of medical providers and specialists. In addition to a primary care provider, patients may need to see: a rheumatologist (joints, muscles, immune system); dermatologist (skin); pulmonologist (lungs); gastroenterologist (digestive system); otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat); immunologist (immune system); nephrologist (kidneys); cardiologist (heart); neurologist (brain/and nervous system); or others as needed.
Coping with vasculitis can be overwhelming at times. Fatigue, pain, emotional stress, and medication side effects can take a toll on your sense of well-being, affecting relationships, work and other aspects of your daily life. Sharing your experience with family and friends, connecting with others through a support group, or talking with a mental health professional can help.
There is no cure for vasculitis at this time, but with early diagnosis and proper treatment, many patients can lead full, productive lives. Outlook depends on a number of factors, including the form of vasculitis; affected organs; severity of disease; how soon it is diagnosed and treated; and whether there is an underlying condition, among others. Most forms of vasculitis are chronic, with periods of relapse and remission. In addition, medications used to treat vasculitis carry the risk of side effects, so follow-up medical care is essential.