Vasculitis is a group of rare conditions that cause the blood vessels in the body to become inflamed and narrow. When blood vessels are restricted, blood can’t reach healthy tissue. This leads to tissue dying and organ damage.

The kidneys contain millions of clusters of small blood vessels, called glomeruli, that filter waste and excess water from your body. When vasculitis causes glomeruli to become inflamed, kidneys have trouble removing waste and extra fluid from your body. This can eventually lead to kidney disease.

Vasculitis can affect anyone at any age, but there are some types that are more common among specific groups.

Types of vasculitis:

  • Behcet’s disease – Causes inflammation of arteries and veins
  • Buerger’s disease – Causes inflammation of blood vessels in the hands and feet
  • Churg-Strauss syndrome – A very rare form of vasculitis that affects the lungs, skin, kidneys, heart and nerves in limbs
  • Cryoglobulinemia – Caused by abnormal proteins in the blood that result in the narrowing of small blood vessels in the skin and kidneys
  • Giant cell arteritis – Causes inflammation of arteries in the head
  • Granulomatosis with polyangiitis – Causes inflammation of the blood vessels in the sinuses, nose, throat, lungs and kidneys.
  • Henoch-Schonlein purpura (IgA vasculitis) – More common in children than adults and causes inflammation of the smallest blood vessels in the body, affecting the skin, joints, bowel and kidneys
  • Hypersensitivity vasculitis – Also known as allergic vasculitis, targets the blood vessels in the skin and specifically the lower legs
  • Kawasaki disease – Most common in children younger than 5, causes inflammation of blood vessels and is a leading cause of acquired heart disease in children
  • Microscopic polyangiitis – Causes inflammation of the small blood vessels, usually in the kidneys, lungs and nerves
  • Polyarteritis nodosa – Causes inflammation of blood vessels in the kidneys, digestive tract, skin and nerves
  • Takayasu’s arteritis – Causes inflammation of large blood vessels, including the aorta

Vasculitis causes

The exact cause of vasculitis is unknown. Specific kinds of vasculitis can be traced to genetic factors. Others can be a result of an immune response. Factors that can trigger an immune response include:

  • Blood cancers
  • Immune system diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and scleroderma
  • Infections, such as hepatitis B and C
  • Reactions to drugs

Vasculitis symptoms

Patients may experience a range of symptoms, depending on which kind of vasculitis they have. Although each patient deals with a different set of individual issues, vasculitis is ultimately a systemic illness, which means it affects the entire body. Many patients with vasculitis experience an overall feeling of being “sick.” General symptoms of vasculitis include:

  • Aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Night sweats
  • Numbness/weakness related to nerve problems
  • Rash
  • Weight loss

Vasculitis diagnosis

Diagnosing vasculitis can be difficult because the symptoms overlap with symptoms of other diseases. Your doctor will take a medical history and may order different tests to diagnose vasculitis. Vasculitis can be diagnosed through the following:

  • Blood test – Your doctor will take a sample of your blood and have it tested for signs of inflammation, such as a high level of C-reactive protein. Blood tests can also look for other indicators of vasculitis like the presence of certain antibodies and a high red blood cell count.
  • Urine test – Your doctor will have you provide a urine sample. It will be tested for protein and red blood cells. High protein levels or the presence of red blood cells can point to vasculitis.
  • Imaging tests – X-rays, ultrasound, CT, MRI and PET are all imaging tests your doctor may order to check which blood vessels and organs are affected by vasculitis.
  • X-rays of blood vessels (angiography) – Your doctor will insert a flexible catheter into a large artery or vein. A special dye is inserted into the bloodstream through the catheter. X-rays are then taken to see how the dye has filled the vessels, which can help your doctor see the extent of inflammation or damage from vasculitis.
  • Biopsy – Your doctor will remove a small sample of tissue from the affected area of your body with a long needle. The tissue will then be examined for signs of vasculitis.

Vasculitis treatment

Vasculitis is a complex disease that requires comprehensive treatment. Experts at the Multidisciplinary Vasculitis Clinic simplify treatment for each patient by bringing doctors from different specialties to one location. At Ohio State, leading doctors with dedicated training in each area of the body will work together to provide you with an individualized care plan. Ohio State’s multidisciplinary approach can be incredibly effective when searching for solutions. Whatever your challenges, we’ll work together to find your best path to improved overall health.

Learn more about kidney care at Ohio State.

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