Cryoglobulinemia is a type of vasculitis (damage and inflammation of your blood vessels) that occurs when abnormal blood proteins called cryoglobulins clump together at cold temperatures. Some people don’t have symptoms and don’t need treatment. But moderate to severe cryoglobulinemia can cause damage to your skin, tissues and organs.
Cryoglobulinemia is a condition that occurs when abnormal proteins in your blood called cryoglobulins thicken and clump together at cold temperatures. The condition is a type of vasculitis (inflammation of your blood vessels), which can restrict blood flow and cause damage to your skin, nerves, joints, muscles and organs — particularly your kidneys. Another name for cryoglobulinemia is cryoglobulinemic vasculitis.
Cryoglobulins are a kind of antibody. Cryoglobulinemia can be divided into three main types, depending on which kind of antibody your body produces.
Type I cryoglobulinemia is frequently associated with an underlying health condition, such as cancer of your blood or immune system.
Type II cryoglobulinemia and type III cryoglobulinemia are often seen in people with long-term (chronic) inflammatory conditions, such as autoimmune diseases. Type II cryoglobulinemia is very common in people with hepatitis C virus (HCV). Another name for types II and III cryoglobulinemia is mixed cryoglobulinemia.
Cryoglobulinemia is a rare condition. But researchers don’t know the exact number of cases because low levels of cryoglobulins can be present without causing symptoms. Researchers estimate that the condition affects about 1 out of every 100,000 people worldwide.
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People with cryoglobulinemia may or may not experience symptoms. When symptoms are present, they most commonly include a particular rash called purpura that looks like red spots or purple bruises, usually over your lower legs. You may also have fatigue and joint pain.
Other cryoglobulinemia symptoms may include:
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of cryoglobulinemia. But the condition is a type of vasculitis, which is an autoimmune disease. Autoimmune disorders occur when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. Factors that may trigger this reaction include:
Cryoglobulinemia can be present alone (“idiopathic”), but it’s frequently associated with other diseases, such as:
Cryoglobulinemia affects women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) more often than people assigned male at birth (AMAB). It also most commonly affects people over the age of 50.
Left untreated, cryoglobulinemia can cause permanent skin, tissue and organ damage, including:
Your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history and perform a physical exam. They’ll order a specific blood test that detects the presence of cryoglobulins in your blood. Learning the type of cryoglobulins can sometimes help determine the cause and how to treat it.
In addition to this blood test, your provider may request the following to help diagnose your condition:
Cryoglobulinemia treatment depends on the organs it affects, the degree of damage and the presence of other medical conditions. It’s very important not only to treat cryoglobulinemia but also to address any other associated disorders. When you treat your other conditions, the symptoms of cryoglobulinemia may improve.
For mild cases of cryoglobulinemia, your healthcare provider may recommend over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain, along with avoiding cold temperatures. They’ll want to monitor your disease with regular checkups.
For more moderate to severe cases of cryoglobulinemia, treatments may include:
The medications your healthcare provider recommends for the treatment of cryoglobulinemia may cause serious side effects. These side effects include potential bone loss (osteoporosis) and lowering your body’s ability to fight infection. Because of this, it’s important to see your provider for routine checkups. They may be able to prescribe medications to offset the side effects. It’s also important to prevent infection, so talk to your provider about vaccinations to lower your risk of infection.
Researchers don’t know the cause of cryoglobulinemia, so there’s no way to prevent the condition. But staying out of the cold may help prevent some symptoms from developing. It’s also important to get tested and treated for hepatitis C infection to reduce your risk.
Your prognosis depends on several factors, including:
In addition, the severity of the condition varies. Some people don’t have any symptoms or have a very mild case that doesn’t require treatment. For people with moderate to severe cases, prompt diagnosis and treatment can help relieve symptoms and prevent long-term complications. If you haven’t experienced any permanent damage to your organs, your prognosis is very good.
The best way to take care of yourself is to actively work with your healthcare providers. Depending on which organs cryoglobulinemia affects, you may work with a team of specialists that includes:
Get to know the members of your team. And be sure to advocate for yourself. Ask questions. If you have concerns about your treatment plan, speak up. Your providers are there to listen and make sure you fully understand everything that affects your health and care.
You should seek treatment from your healthcare provider if you develop any of the symptoms of cryoglobulinemia. It’s also important to contact your provider if you have hepatitis C and develop any of the symptoms.
Even with effective treatment, relapses can occur. See your provider if you develop new or worsening symptoms or if your symptoms return. Routine checkups and frequent monitoring are important in finding relapses and preventing complications.
Questions to ask your healthcare provider include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Cryoglobulinemia can be a challenging condition to live with. Symptoms of the condition and side effects of your medications can take a great toll on your sense of well-being. It can also affect many other aspects of your life. But you don’t have to go through it alone. Ask your healthcare provider to help you find a support group. Sharing stories and tips with others experiencing cryoglobulinemia may help.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/28/2023.
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