Vasculitis is a general term for a group of uncommon diseases that feature inflammation of the blood vessels. The blood vessels of the body are referred to as the vascular system. The blood vessels are comprised of arteries that pass oxygen-rich blood to the tissues of the body and veins that return oxygen-depleted blood from the tissues to the lungs for oxygen. Vasculitis is characterized by inflammation in and damage to the walls of various blood vessels.
Each of the vasculitis diseases is defined by certain patterns of distribution of blood vessel involvement, particular organ involvement, and laboratory test abnormalities. As a group, these diseases are referred to as vasculitides.
The word vasculitis is derived from the Latin “vasculum”, vessel + “- itis,” inflammation. Another term for vasculitis is angiitis. When arteries are the inflamed blood vessels, the condition is also referred to as arteritis. When the veins are inflamed, it is referred to as venulitis.
The actual cause of these vasculitis diseases is usually not known. However, immune system abnormality and inflammation of blood vessels are common features. Each form of vasculitis has its own characteristic pattern of symptoms, much of which depends on what particular organs are affected.
Examples of vasculitis include:
Vasculitis can also accompany:
Laboratory testing of blood or body fluids in a patient with active vasculitis generally indicates inflammation in the body. Depending on the degree of organ involvement, a variety of organ function tests can be abnormal.
The diagnosis of vasculitis is definitively established after a biopsy of involved tissue demonstrates the pattern of blood vessel inflammation. Examples of tissues used for biopsy include skin, sinuses, lung, nerve, and kidney. Depending upon the situation, an alternative to biopsy can be an X-ray test of the blood vessels called an angiogram, which can demonstrate characteristic patterns of inflammation in affected blood vessels.
The treatment of the various forms of vasculitis is based on the severity of the illness and the organs involved.
The management of vasculitis is an evolving field in medicine. The ideal programs for monitoring and treatment will continue to improve as disease patterns and causes are defined by medical research.
Medically Reviewed on 3/18/2020
Luca, NJC, MD. Vasculitis and Thrombophlebitis. Medscape. Updated: Oct 26, 2017.
Kelley and Firestein’s Textbook of Rheumatology 10th edition. 2016.