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Patient information: Vasculitis (Beyond the Basics)

Gene G Hunder, MD
Section Editor
Eric L Matteson, MD, MPH
Deputy Editor
Monica Ramirez Curtis, MD, MPH
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The word “vasculitis” means inflammation of blood vessels. Blood vessels include the huge network of arteries and veins that deliver blood from the heart to all of the organs and tissues throughout the body and then return the blood back to the heart.

The inflammation caused by vasculitis can affect the lining of the blood vessels (endothelium) or the wall of an artery or vein. This can cause the vessel to become thickened, weakened, narrowed, or scarred.

The damaged vessel may not function normally, which can affect blood flow to the tissues that the vessel normally serves. Damaged blood vessels can lead to decreased blood flow, partial or complete organ failure due to lack of blood flow, or bleeding into the skin or other part of the body due to rupture of the blood vessel wall. This damage is sometimes permanent.

Some types of vasculitis resolve without treatment, while others require lifelong treatment with medicine. Fortunately, treatments can usually control or minimize vessel damage in the short term. However, long-term side effects of these treatments are possible, and it is important to see your doctor or nurse on a regular basis.


There are many different types of blood vessels in the body.

Arteries are part of the large system of blood vessels that delivers blood throughout the body. This includes large- and medium-sized arteries and smaller arterial branches (arterioles).

The arterioles deliver oxygen and nutrients to a network of tiny vessels called capillaries.

The capillaries drain into the venous system (veins) and help remove waste products.

The smallest veins are venules; these connect to form veins.


In most cases, the cause of vasculitis is unknown. A combination of factors likely sets the inflammatory process in motion.

Vasculitis can occur in conjunction with another illness, such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. (See "Patient information: Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient information: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (Beyond the Basics)".)

Sometimes, vasculitis develops as a reaction to a drug or other substance (called hypersensitivity vasculitis).

In still other cases, vasculitis occurs with a viral illness, such as hepatitis B or C, HIV (the virus that causes AIDS), cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, or parvovirus B19.


There are many different types of vasculitis. These are often classified according to the type and location of the blood vessels that are involved. Some types of vasculitis are more serious than others. The names and characteristics of the most common types of vasculitis are listed below. These are organized according to the size of the blood vessel affected.

Large vessel vasculitis — Vasculitis that affects large arteries includes Takayasu arteritis and giant cell (temporal) arteritis.

Takayasu arteritis — Takayasu arteritis usually affects the main artery that receives blood from the heart (the aorta) and its branches (figure 1).

Takayasu arteritis is not common in the United States. The disease usually affects women who are between 10 and 40 years old. Common symptoms include pain and weakness when trying to use the arms or legs (called claudication). Other organs, such as the intestines, can also be affected; this can cause abdominal pain after eating. If the heart is affected, there can be chest pain with activity (eg, walking, running). (See "Patient information: Peripheral artery disease and claudication (Beyond the Basics)".)

Takayasu arteritis is diagnosed by looking at the arteries with an imaging test. This usually involves magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Other possible tests include angiography or arteriography, which uses an injection of dye into a vein to see the blood vessels of the heart with X-ray. (See "Clinical features and diagnosis of Takayasu arteritis".)

Giant cell arteritis — Giant cell arteritis can affect the aorta and its branches. Another name for giant cell arteritis is temporal arteritis. Temporal refers to the arteries of the face and scalp, particularly those near the temples (figure 2).

Common symptoms of giant cell arteritis include headache, tiring of jaw muscles during chewing, and visual changes or loss of vision.

More detailed information is available separately. (See "Patient information: Polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell (temporal) arteritis (Beyond the Basics)" and "Diagnosis of giant cell (temporal) arteritis".)

Medium-sized vessel vasculitis — Some types of vasculitis affect medium-sized arteries.

Medium-sized vessel vasculitis can develop in people without other medical problems; this is called polyarteritis.

Medium-sized vessel vasculitis can also develop in people with certain medical problems, like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, scleroderma, hairy cell leukemia, and hepatitis B or C infection.

Polyarteritis nodosa — Polyarteritis nodosa causes inflammation of medium to small arteries. In the skin, the inflammation causes the blood vessels to become thickened so that they can be felt. Some people develop skin ulcers (open sores).

Inflammation in the blood vessels caused by polyarteritis nodosa decreases or blocks blood flow to certain parts of the body. This can damage the kidneys, intestines, heart, or nerves in the arms or legs.

Polyarteritis nodosa is diagnosed with an imaging test like arteriography or by a sample of tissue (a biopsy) from an involved blood vessel. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of polyarteritis nodosa in adults".)

Kawasaki disease — Kawasaki disease is an arteritis of large, medium, and small arteries, particularly the arteries in the heart. The disease mainly occurs in young children. (See "Kawasaki disease: Clinical features and diagnosis" and "Kawasaki disease: Initial treatment and prognosis".)

Small vessel vasculitis — Several types of vasculitis affect small vessels (eg, very small arteries, arterioles, capillaries, and small veins [venules]).

Churg-Strauss vasculitis — Churg-Strauss vasculitis occurs almost exclusively in people who have asthma. The condition often causes lung damage as well as damage to other tissues. To confirm the diagnosis, a doctor will take a sample of tissue (biopsy) of the lung or other involved tissue. (See "Treatment and prognosis of eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Churg-Strauss)".)

Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Wegener’s) — Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Wegener’s) usually affects the nose, sinuses, lungs, and kidneys. A biopsy of the lining of the nose, sinus, part of a lung, or kidney can confirm the diagnosis. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis".)

IgA vasculitis (Henoch-Schönlein purpura) — IgA vasculitis (Henoch-Schönlein purpura) usually affects children, although it can occasionally affect adults. Symptoms include abdominal and joint pain; a skin rash consisting of small, red to purple, slightly raised areas (picture 1); and kidney involvement that causes the urine to appear bloody or darkly colored, like tea or coffee.

Henoch-Schönlein purpura (IgA vasculitis) is diagnosed based on the symptoms and characteristic skin rash. A skin or kidney biopsy can confirm the diagnosis. (See "Henoch-Schönlein purpura (immunoglobulin A vasculitis): Clinical manifestations and diagnosis" and "Henoch-Schönlein purpura (immunoglobulin A vasculitis): Management".)

Cryoglobulinemia — Cryoglobulins are a combination of the body's infection-fighting proteins (antibodies, immunoglobulins) and their target proteins (antigens). When the serum (liquid part) of the blood is cooled, the complexes become so large that they form visible clumps (called precipitates or cryoglobulins).

There are several types of cryoglobulinemia, and the symptoms depend upon the type. Common symptoms include:

Muscle and joint pain


Raised red bumps on the legs

These symptoms can get worse after being in cold temperatures, because the clumped immunoglobulins plug small blood vessels. (See "Treatment of the mixed cryoglobulinemia syndrome".)

Cryoglobulinemia is diagnosed with a blood test for cryoglobulins or with a kidney biopsy. (See "Patient information: Renal (kidney) biopsy (Beyond the Basics)".)

Behçet's syndrome — Behçet's syndrome is an inflammatory disease that can affect both small and large vessels which can lead to blockage of blood vessels, aneurysm (weakening of the vessel wall), and blood clots.

The diagnosis of Behçet's syndrome is based on symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no test that can tell for certain if a person's symptoms are caused by Behçet's syndrome. Some of the symptoms include:

Ulcers (sores) inside the mouth (picture 2) or on the genitals

Eye problems

A rash or sore on the skin

Joint pain and swelling

The treatment of Behçet's syndrome depends on which symptoms are present. (See "Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of Behçet’s syndrome" and "Treatment of Behçet’s syndrome".)

Single-organ vasculitis — Single-organ vasculitis refers to vasculitis that affects arteries or veins of any size in a single organ, but does not affect other parts of the body. However, some patients initially diagnosed with single-organ vasculitis may eventually develop another type of vasculitis.

Primary central nervous system vasculitis — Primary central nervous system vasculitis is one example of single-organ vasculitis. Also called isolated central nervous system vasculitis or primary angiitis of the central nervous system, it affects medium-sized and small arteries in the brain and spinal cord. It tends to occur in middle-aged people. Common symptoms include headache, confusion, and stroke.


Symptoms of vasculitis vary from one person to another and depend upon the type of vasculitis and location in the body of inflamed vessels. Some common symptoms include:

Fatigue or weakness


Muscle and joint pain

Lack of appetite and weight loss

Abdominal pain

Kidney problems (bloody or dark-colored urine)

Nerve problems (numbness, weakness, pain)


It can be difficult to diagnose vasculitis, because the symptoms are similar to those caused by a number of other illnesses. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you, will perform a physical exam, and may order tests.

The tests used to diagnose vasculitis depend on the type of vasculitis that is suspected and may include blood or urine tests, imaging tests (like X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]), nerve testing, or lung function testing. A biopsy is often required to be sure of the diagnosis before starting treatment.


The treatment of vasculitis will depend on the specific type of vasculitis and the areas of the body that are involved.

General measures — Treatment may include one or more of the following measures.

Glucocorticoids (also called steroids), such as prednisone, can be taken by mouth (as a pill) in most cases; high doses may be given into a vein. Because there are risks when steroids are taken for long periods of time, the goal is to take them only as long as needed.

Some people require long-term glucocorticoids to control symptoms and to prevent worsening of their condition. Close monitoring for possible side effects of glucocorticoids (diabetes, weight gain, bone thinning) is needed. There are medicines that can reduce the risk of bone fractures for people who take long-term glucocorticoids. (See "Patient information: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)".)

A treatment that suppresses the immune system might be needed for more serious types of vasculitis. This type of treatment is known as cytotoxic treatment. One cytotoxic medication, cyclophosphamide, has dramatically improved the outlook for people with some types of vasculitis.

Cytotoxic treatments can be used along with steroids, and they can be taken by mouth every day or can be given into a vein every three to four weeks. Treatment is usually continued until the disease is under control (called remission). Cytotoxic treatment can have serious side effects (eg, low blood cell counts, cancer). As a result, close monitoring is required.

Azathioprine and methotrexate are medicines that suppress the immune system but are not as strong as cytotoxic treatments. These treatments can be used for less severe forms of vasculitis and as maintenance therapy after treatment with cyclophosphamide.

Further information about azathioprine and methotrexate is available in a separate article. (See "Patient information: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (Beyond the Basics)".)


Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.

This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.

Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.

The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.

Patient information: Polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell arteritis (The Basics)
Patient information: Henoch-Schönlein purpura (IgA vasculitis) (The Basics)
Patient information: Optic neuritis (The Basics)
Patient information: Polyarteritis nodosa (The Basics)
Patient information: Vasculitis (The Basics)
Patient information: Antinuclear antibodies (The Basics)
Patient information: Behçet's syndrome (The Basics)

Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.

Patient information: Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Peripheral artery disease and claudication (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Polymyalgia rheumatica and giant cell (temporal) arteritis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Renal (kidney) biopsy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)
Patient information: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (Beyond the Basics)

Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.

Alternative agents in the treatment of granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Overview of and approach to the vasculitides in adults
Clinical features and diagnosis of eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Churg-Strauss)
Clinical features and diagnosis of Takayasu arteritis
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of polyarteritis nodosa in adults
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of rheumatoid vasculitis
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Clinical manifestations of giant cell (temporal) arteritis
Clinical manifestations of relapsing polychondritis
Clinical manifestations of vasculitic neuropathy
Clinical spectrum of antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies
Diagnosis of giant cell (temporal) arteritis
Epidemiology, pathogenesis, and pathology of eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Churg-Strauss)
Gastrointestinal manifestations of vasculitis
Overview of cutaneous small vessel vasculitis
Initial immunosuppressive therapy in granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Maintenance immunosuppressive therapy in granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Overview of the management of vasculitis in adults
Pathogenesis of granulomatosis with polyangiitis and related vasculitides
Primary angiitis of the central nervous system in adults
Identification and management of relapsing disease in granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Serum sickness and serum sickness-like reactions
Treatment and prognosis of eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (Churg-Strauss)
Treatment-resistant granulomatosis with polyangiitis and microscopic polyangiitis
Treatment of giant cell (temporal) arteritis
Treatment of Takayasu arteritis
Kawasaki disease: Clinical features and diagnosis
Kawasaki disease: Initial treatment and prognosis
Henoch-Schönlein purpura (immunoglobulin A vasculitis): Clinical manifestations and diagnosis
Henoch-Schönlein purpura (immunoglobulin A vasculitis): Management
Treatment of the mixed cryoglobulinemia syndrome
Clinical manifestations and diagnosis of Behçet’s syndrome

The following organizations also provide reliable health information.

National Library of Medicine
(www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/vasculitis.html, available in Spanish)

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute


Literature review current through: Jul 2016. | This topic last updated: May 5, 2015.
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