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Diseases & Conditions


What is vasculitis?

Vasculitis is the inflammation of the body’s blood vessels. Vasculitis can affect very small blood vessels (capillaries), medium-size blood vessels (arterioles and venules), or large blood vessels (arteries and veins). If in a vessel with vasculitis is reduced or stopped, the tissues that receive blood from that vessel begin to die.

What causes vasculitis?

In most cases, the exact cause is unknown; however, it is clear that the immune system (the system that keeps the body healthy) plays a big role. While the immune system usually works to protect the body, it can sometimes become "overactive" and end up attacking parts of the body. In most cases of vasculitis, something causes an immune or "allergic" reaction in the blood vessel walls. Substances that cause allergic reactions are called antigens. Sometimes certain medicines or illnesses can act as antigens and start this process.

What are the symptoms of vasculitis?

Common symptoms include:

  • Skin rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Fever
  • Joint pains
  • Abdominal pain
  • Kidney problems (including dark or bloody urine)
  • Nerve problems (including numbness, weakness, and pain)

Additional symptoms can occur, depending on the area of the body affected by vasculitis. If a blood vessel with vasculitis is small, the vessel may break and produce tiny areas of bleeding in the tissue. These areas will appear as small red or purple dots on the skin. If a larger vessel is inflamed, it may swell and produce a nodule (lump or mass of tissue), which may be felt if the blood vessel is close to the skin surface.

How is vasculitis diagnosed?

The diagnosis of vasculitis is based on a person's medical history, current symptoms, complete physical examination, and the results of specialized laboratory tests. A doctor can test for blood abnormalities, which can occur when vasculitis is present. These abnormalities include:

  • Anemia
  • A high white blood cell count
  • A high platelet count
  • Signs of kidney or liver problems
  • Signs of an allergic reaction

Blood tests also can identify immune complexes or antibodies (ways the body fights off what it thinks is a threat) that cause vasculitis. Additional tests may include X-rays, tissue biopsies, blood vessel and heart scans.

How is vasculitis treated?

The precise treatment of vasculitis depends on the specific type of vasculitis and the areas/organs that are involved. Some measures that may be necessary include the use of steroids, such as prednisone. For more serious types of vasculitis, cytotoxic (causing a toxic effect in the cells) medications are used. These medicines help destroy the cells that participate in the process causing vasculitis. They can also damage normal cells so this type of treatment must be watched very closely.

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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 12/22/2008...#12101

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