"Vasculitis" is a general term for a group of diseases that involve inflammation in blood vessels. Blood vessels of all sizes may be affected, from the largest vessel in the body (the aorta) to the smallest blood vessels in the skin. The size of blood vessel affected varies according to the specific type of vasculitis.
The causes of most vasculitides are currently unknown. It is clear, however, that the immune system plays a critical role in the tissue damage caused by vasculitis. The immune system, normally a protective organ of the body, becomes "hyperactive" in vasculitis because of some unknown stimulus, leading to inflammation within the body’s tissues. Inflammation in blood vessel walls leads to narrowing of the vessels. The resulting inadequate blood supply to a particular tissue or organ results in damage.
- A variety of rashes, the most classic of which is "palpable purpura" – purplish-red spots, usually found on the legs. These spots can usually be felt by the examiner's fingertips, hence the description "palpable".
- Symptoms ranging from full-blown arthritis to aches in the joints without obvious swelling (arthralgias).
- Cough (particularly coughing up blood), shortness of breath, a pneumonia-like appearance to a patient's chest X-ray lung "infiltrates", and the development of cavities in the lungs.
- Red blood cells (usually invisible to the naked eye), clumps of red blood cells (known as "casts", also invisible to the naked eye), and loss of protein in the urine. May lead to renal insufficiency, requiring dialysis.
- Abdominal pain, bloody diarrhea, perforation of the intestines.
- Anemia (low hematocrit or red blood cell count) and/or a slightly elevated white blood cell count.
- Chronic sinus congestion and "infections" that persist for longer than they should; inflammation of the nasal septum, sometimes resulting in a perforation or collapse of the bridge of the nose; hearing loss.
- May affect either blood vessels to the eyes, causing the sudden loss of vision, or small blood vessels within the eyes, leading to retinal problems, thinning of the sclera (the white part of the eyes), inflammation within the eye’s different chambers, and conjunctivitis ("pinkeye").
- Headaches, strokes, changes in mental status, difficulty with coordination.
- Shooting pains in the arms and legs, numbness, and asymmetrical weakness (i.e., weakness that involves one side of the body more than the other).
If you suspect that you or a friend or relative has vasculitis, you should consult a physician as soon as possible. Remember, vasculitis can be very mild and of little importance, or very severe and life-threatening - or any degree in between. Therefore, an expert should help you decide: (a) if you have vasculitis, (b) how serious it is, and (c) if and how it should be treated.