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Vasculitis

What is vasculitis?

Vasculitis is inflammation of blood vessels, which can cause complications, including blocking the flow of blood to parts of the body.

Vasculitis can affect people of all ages, but there are types of vasculitis that occur in certain age groups more often than others.

Vasculitis may affects one area at a time, such as the skin, eye, brain or certain internal organs, or it may affect several areas at the same time.

What are the symptoms of vasculitis?

An enormous number of symptoms are possible because any organ system may be involved. If the skin is involved, there may be a rash. If nerves suffer loss of blood supply, there may initially be an abnormal sensation followed by a loss of sensation.

Vasculitis in the brain may cause a stroke, or in the heart, may result in a heart attack. Inflammation in the kidneys could result in abnormalities identified in urine tests and can lead to progressive kidney failure.

Sometimes the symptoms may be as general as fever, loss of appetite, weight loss and loss of energy. If you suffer any unexplained or unusual symptoms, seek medical advice.

What causes vasculitis?

In many cases, the cause of vasculitis is unknown. In a few cases, however, the origins may be traced to recent or ongoing infections, such as those caused by certain viruses. Occasionally, an allergic reaction to a medication may trigger vasculitis.

Vasculitis can sometimes develop after an infection has come and gone. Usually in these cases, the infection triggers an abnormal response in the person's immune system, damaging the blood vessels. Vasculitis also may be related to other diseases of the immune system that the person has had for months or years. For example, it could be a complication of rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or Sjogren's syndrome.

Vasculitis diagnosis

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

Blood tests can also 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 (including of blood vessels), and  heart scans.

How serious is vasculitis?

Vasculitis can be very serious. In an extreme situation, when a segment of a blood vessel becomes weakened, it may then stretch and bulge (called an aneurysm). The wall of the blood vessel can become so weak that it ruptures and bleeds, possibly causing death. Fortunately, this is a very rare event.

If a blood vessel becomes inflamed and narrowed, the blood supply to the area of the body it serves may be partially or completely blocked. If alternate blood vessels (called collateral blood vessels) are not available in sufficient quantity to carry the blood to such sites, the tissue supplied by the affected vessels will die. Because vasculitis can occur in any part of the body, any tissue or organ can be affected.

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