Some types of vasculitis appear to be due to a type of allergic response to a specific substance (for example, a drug). Other types of vasculitis have no identifiable initiating event. Furthermore, researchers have not been able to consistently identify antibody-antigen complexes in all of the types of diseases caused by vasculitis. The types of antigens responsible for the initial immune response have often gone unidentified as well. Furthermore, not all people with such complexes deposited along the blood vessels go on to develop vasculitis. Some researchers believe that, in addition to the presence of immune complexes, an individual must have some other characteristics which make him or her susceptible to vasculitis. Many questions have yet to be answered to totally explain the development these diseases.
Symptoms of vasculitis depend on the severity of the inflammation and the organ system or systems affected. Some types of vasculitis are so mild that the only symptoms noted are small reddish-purple dots (called petechiae) on the skin due to tiny amounts of blood seeping out of leaky blood vessels. In more widespread types of vasculitis, the patient may have general symptoms of illness, including fever, achy muscles and joints, decreased appetite, weight loss, and loss of energy. The organ systems affected by vasculitis may include:
The skin. Rashes, bumps under the skin, petechiae, larger reddish-purple circles (purpura), or bruising (ecchymoses) may appear. Areas of skin totally deprived of blood flow, and therefore of oxygen, may die, resulting in blackened areas of gangrene.
The joints. In addition to joint pain, the joints themselves may become inflamed, resulting in arthritis.
Brain and nervous system. Inflammation of the blood vessels in the brain can cause headaches, changes in personality, confusion, and seizures. If an area of the brain becomes totally deprived of oxygen, a stroke occurs. A stroke means that an area of brain tissue is either severely injured or completely dead from lack of oxygen. This may leave the individual with a permanent disability. If the vessels that lead to the eyes are affected, vision may become seriously disturbed. Nerves in the arms and legs may result in painful tingling sensations, loss of feeling, and weakness.
Gastrointestinal system. Patients may have significant abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. If blood flow is completely cut off to an area of intestine, that part of the intestine will die off. The liver may be affected.
Heart. This is an extremely serious type of vasculitis. The arteries of the heart (coronary arteries) may develop weakened areas, called aneurysms. The heart muscle itself may become inflamed and enlarged. With oxygen deprivation of the heart muscle, the individual may suffer a heart attack.
Lungs. The patient may experience shortness of breath with chest pain, and may cough up blood. There may be wheezing.
Kidney. Changes in the arteries of the kidney may result in high blood pressure. The kidneys may become increasingly unable to appropriately filter the blood, and kidney failure may occur.
Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt MD, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,