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Vasculitis

The connection between lupus and vasculitis

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Updated January 13, 2009

Vasculitis, or inflammation of the blood vessels, is a condition that can occur in people with lupus. It can occur when a person’s immune system attacks blood vessels.

This can be a dangerous condition, since an inflamed blood vessel can become narrow, restricting blood flow. Blood vessels can even close completely, or stretch, weaken and burst, causing internal bleeding. This disruption can damage internal organs.

Though it can be difficult to ascertain the cause of vasculitis, the most likely reason is an immune or allergic reaction in the vessel walls.

Infection of the blood vessel walls is another cause, but it is rare. In this instance, bacteria or virus infects the blood vessel and white blood cells damage the vessel while destroying the infection.

Symptoms

Typical symptoms of vasculitis should be familiar to people who suffer from inflammation: fever, swelling, malaise, and fatigue.

But specific signs and symptoms often depend on where and what organ tissues blood vessels serve and the severity of the inflammation.

Some symptoms related to various organs in the body:

  • The Skin
    • Red or purple dots, often numerous on the legs
    • Larger spots that may look like large bruises
    • Hives (uncommon)
    • Itchy lumpy rash (uncommon)
    • Painful or tender lumps (uncommon)

  • Joints
    • Aching in joints and arthritis with pain
    • Swelling and heat sensation

  • The Brain
    • Headaches
    • Behavioral disturbances
    • Confusion
    • Seizures
    • Strokes

  • The heart

    Unusual in people with lupus, but would typically result in a heaviness in the chest during exertion (relieved by rest).

  • The lungs

    Vasculitis of lungs can cause fever, cough and chest x-ray findings very similar to pneumonia. Vasculitis of the lungs can lead to lung tissue scarring and chronic shortness of breath.

  • The eyes

    Usually associated with the small blood vessels in the retina in people with lupus. Symptoms are sometimes nonexistent. When they do present themselves, symptoms include:

    • Visual blurring which comes on suddenly and stays.
    • Vision loss

Diagnosis and Treatment

Most forms of vasculitis are treatable if detected early, before substantial organ damage has occurred. Many forms of vascultis are treated with corticosteroids, though your doctor will determine the best treatment plan.

To determine whether a person has vasculitis, a healthcare professional will review a patient’s medical history, conduct a physical exam and request some specialized lab tests, regardless of the type of vasculitis, including a complete blood count, urinalysis, and liver function tests.

Sources:

What Is Vasculitis? National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute. August 2006.

Vasculitis Lupus Foundation of America. November 2008.

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