What Is Vasculitis?

Vasculitis is a somewhat rare condition that occurs when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own blood vessels. The job of the blood vessels is to carry blood between your heart, organs and limbs.

Your body’s natural response when blood vessels are attacked is inflammation. If blood vessels become inflamed, they narrow and the movement of blood through your body can be slowed. This can cause serious complications, depending upon the severity of the disease, where it occurs in your body and the type of vasculitis.

Vasculitis can be life-threatening, but it is highly treatable. Once you have the condition, it can be ongoing or it can go into remission (become inactive) and return over time.

Types of Vasculitis

Vasculitis can affect the small, medium and large vessels of your body.

Vasculitis affecting the small vessels include:

  • Henoch-Schonlein Purpura (HSP): This condition affects the capillaries, or smallest blood vessels, in the skin, joints, intestines and kidneys. It may result in signs of kidney damage and it impacts individuals of all ages.
  • Essential mixed cryoglobulinemia: This condition is characterized by proteins in the blood that can become the consistency of gel in cold temperatures. It is often caused by hepatitis C.
  • Hypersensitivity vasculitis: This condition is often brought on by an allergic reaction to medication. It affects the skin, typically on the lower body.
  • Microscopic polyangiitis: This condition impacts the small blood vessels of the kidney and lungs and can have symptoms that come on suddenly and progress quickly.

Vasculitis affecting the medium vessels include:

  • Kawasaki disease: This condition, which typically affects children, can impact any vessel in the body. It affects the lymph nodes and can cause serious heart problems if found in the coronary arteries.
  • Central nervous system vasculitis: This condition is inflammation of blood vessel walls in the brain or spine, which make up the central nervous system.
  • Polyarteritis nodosa: This condition can affect the kidneys, nerves, skin and the digestive tract.
  • Buerger's disease: This condition causes blockage of the blood vessels in the feet and hands. When less blood flow gets to the tissues, they can be damaged.

Vasculitis affecting the large vessels include:

  • Behcet’s disease: This condition is more common in people ages 20 to 40, in men, and in people of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern descent. It affects the mouth, genitals, skin and eyes.
  • Cogan’s syndrome: This condition is systemic, meaning it affects the whole body, but is commonly seen in the aorta, which carries blood from the heart to the body.
  • Giant cell arteritis: This condition affects the temporal artery located in the head. It is most commonly found in people over the age of 50.
  • Polymyalgia rheumatica: This condition affects the body’s large joints and causes pain in areas like the lower back, shoulders, hips and thighs.
  • Takayasu's arteritis: This condition is often found in the aorta.