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Vasculitis: An Overview

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Vasculitis related image Photo: Getty Images

Do you remember your grammar lessons from grade school and how the teacher drilled you on the meanings of the multitude of prefixes and suffixes common to the English language, and how they changed the meaning of the root word?

I still remember gnawing my fingers to the nub before test day trying to keep the various meanings straight! But, the time spent memorizing the meanings of these endings and beginnings certainly proved to be time well spent over the years.

In many ways, the terminology used by the medical profession can be thought of as its own language. I like to refer to it as the “language” of medicine. Just as we have prefixes and suffixes with distinct meanings, the language of medicine also uses unique prefixes and suffixes to enhance and expand the meanings of root conditions.

One of the commonly used suffixes in medicine is “-itis.” Anytime you see the ending -itis attached to a condition, you can be certain that some type of inflammation is involved. Such is the case with vasculitis.

What is vasculitis?
The term “vascular” generally refers to blood vessels. The addition of the suffix –itis, or vasculitis, forms the term used to describe inflammation of the vessels that carry blood throughout the body.

What causes vasculitis?
Vasculitis is caused when the body treats the affected blood vessels as if they are a virus, bacteria, or other foreign object that doesn’t belong. Once blood vessels have been identified as foreign invaders, the immune system kicks in and attacks, seeking to rid the body of the “bad” blood vessels. The result is inflammation and a thickening or narrowing of the blood vessels which reduces the amount of blood which the vessels are able to deliver.

The cause of vasculitis isn’t always clear. Sometimes, as in the case of primary vasculitis, there is no apparent cause. In other cases, there may be an underlying condition or disease which triggers vasculitis. When an underlying cause is identified, it’s referred to as secondary vasculitis.

Causes of secondary vasculitis include conditions or disease such as:

• Infections – such as hepatitis C
• Diseases related to the immune systems – lupus, scleroderma, or rheumatoid arthritis for example
• Allergic reactions
• Cancers affect blood cells such as leukemia or lymphoma

What are vasculitis symptoms?
Some common vasculitis symptoms include: loss of appetite, weight loss, fatigue, fever, muscle or joint pain, and problems with nerves. Various types of vasculitis may have symptoms which are unique to that particular form of vasculitis.

How long does vasculitis last?
Unfortunately, the answer is, “it depends.” Some forms of vasculitis are acute and last only a short time. On the other hand, chronic vasculitis may last a long time and be a lifelong condition.

What are the vasculitis complications?
Vasculitis complications vary, based on the specific type of vasculitis that you are suffering from, and can include damage to major organs, which may require ongoing treatments.

In severe cases, vasculitis may even result in death. Sometimes an aneurysm may develop as a result of the blood vessels stretching and weakening.

How is vasculitis treated?
Depending on the type of vasculitis you have, your doctor may prescribe steroids such as prednisone or Medrol to help control the inflammation. More severe cases of vasculitis may require medications designed to control the response of the immune system or to kill the immune cells which are responsible for causing the vasculitis.

What is the prognosis for vasculitis?
It’s important to seek treatment as soon as possible if you suspect vasculitis since it usually responds well if it’s treated early. Sometimes, vasculitis may go into remission and you may experience flare-ups from time to time in the future.

Unfortunately, chronic forms of vasculitis are ongoing and require long-term treatment. Because of the risk of aneurysm or permanent damage to vital organs, disability and death are possible but these outcomes are uncommon.


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

Reviewed October 12, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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