Vasculitis is an inflammation of the blood vessels caused when the immune system mistakes blood vessels for foreign invaders and mounts an attack. The resulting inflammation causes arteries to narrow, restricting blood flow to vital organs.
Because red blood cells are the mechanism that delivers oxygen throughout the body, restricted blood flow reduces the amount of oxygen received which may result in serious damage to vital organs, and in some cases, death.
Vasculitis comes in various forms, some of which are not so serious and may last only a short time. Other forms may be serious, chronic life-long conditions. Some types of vasculitis may become life-threatening.
Here, we’ll take a look at five forms of vasculitis. This list is not meant to be exhaustive but simply to provide information on a few common vasculitis types.
Leukocytoclastic vasculitis is often referred to as hypersensitivity vasculitis, allergic vasculitis, or cutaneous vasculitis. Caused by an allergic reaction to medication or infection, this form of vasculitis affects the surface of the skin.
It’s characterized by a rash -- red spots -- that appear on the lower legs. Sometimes, the rash appears on the backs of people who are restricted to bed.
If the root cause is an allergic reaction to medication, this form of vasculitis often goes away once the offending medication is stopped. Some cases may require treatment with corticosteroids or other anti-inflammatory drugs.
Central Nervous System (CNS) Vasculitis
CNS vasculitis affects medium-sized blood vessels and is generally a result of “systemic” vasculitis, meaning that the vasculitis affects your entire system. This type of vasculitis includes any type of vasculitis that affects the central nervous system such as cerebral vasculitis, Behcet’s disease, Cogan’s syndrome, or Wegener's granulomatosis.
Various rheumatologic diseases such as lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and Lyme disease may also be contributing factors to CNS. Other conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, heroin or cocaine usage, and general infections are also associated with CNS.
CNS vasculitis is characterized by symptoms which are similar to a stroke such as paralysis, inability to move, and general muscle weakness. Persons with CNS vasculitis may also experience changes in cognitive ability, difficulty concentrating, clear thinking, or headaches.
Extremely rare, Churg-Strauss vasculitis is an inflammation of the small blood vessels in your lungs. It’s sometimes referred to as Churg-Strauss syndrome, allergic anxieties, or granulomatosis.
Because it affects the small blood vessels in the lungs, this type of vasculitis is more common in persons with asthma. In addition to the lungs, Churg-Strauss vasculitis also affects the skin, central nervous system, heart, and kidneys.
This form of vasculitis generally manifests in early adulthood in persons between the ages of 20 and 40 years and is more common in men than women. Ethnicity plays a role in susceptibility to this form of vasculitis. Those of Mediterranean, Middle or Far Eastern ethnicity are more likely to develop the condition.
It’s characterized by ulcers in the mouth and in the genitals. Some people also experience skin eruptions similar to acne or inflammation in the eyes, also known as uveitis.
Buerger’s disease, or thromboangiitis obliterans, is a form of vasculitis which is very common in persons who smoke cigarettes. This form of vasculitis specifically targets blood vessels in the limbs -- hands, feet, legs, and arms -- resulting is a loss of blood flow to these areas.
Some of the complications from Buerger’s disease can be serious including blood clots and ulcers which may develop into gangrene. Persons with Buerger’s syndrome may also experience pain localized in feet or calves when walking or in the hands and arms.
While it can affect anyone, it’s more common in young men under the age of 40 who are of Eastern European or Asian descent. The blood flow may become so blocked that surgery is required to correct the condition. Smoking cessation is the best treatment for Buerger’s disease.
Vasculitis. Mayo Clinic. 08 Oct 2011. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/vasculitis/DS00513
What is Vasculitis? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. 01 Apr 2011. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/vas
Cerebral Vasculitis. Diseases A to Z.com. 2011. http://www.diseasesatoz.com/cerebral-vasculitis.htm
Reviewed October 25, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith