Vasculitis is a general term for a group of about 20 disorders that involve inflammation in the blood vessels. Although these diseases are similar in some ways, they vary depending on the organs and blood vessels affected. When blood vessels become inflamed, they can become weakened, stretch and increase in size, causing an aneurysm. At other times, they may become inflamed and narrowed, partially or completely eliminating blood supply to tissues. If other blood vessels are not able to carry blood to that area, the tissue will die.
Symptoms of vasculitis differ depending on the blood vessels involved. However, many patients with vasculitis feel sick and experience fevers, weight loss, fatigue, a rapid pulse and a range of aches and pains that are difficult to pinpoint. In addition, vasculitis can affect virtually every organ system in the body, including the skin, joints, lungs, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, blood, sinuses, nose and ears, eyes, brain and nerves.
The causes of most forms of vasculitis are unknown. However, it has been shown that the immune system plays a critical role in the tissue damage and that it may be related to other diseases of the immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus or Sjögren's syndrome.
Typically your doctor will conduct a variety of tests to confirm a vasculitis diagnosis. Those tests may include:
Treatment depends on the type of vasculitis and the organs affected, and usually includes medications that suppress parts of the immune system. Examples include cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, methotrexate and prednisone. These medications can cause many side effects, which your doctor will discuss with you.
Reviewed by health care specialists at UCSF Medical Center.