Dangers of Vasculitis

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Illustration of Narrowed artery

Vasculitis is an inflammation of the blood vessels. It can be mild or severe, depending on which blood vessels are affected and the severity of inflammation. In some cases, vasculitis can cause organ failure and may be fatal. If you or a loved one has vasculitis, it’s important to know about potential complications, how to recognize serious vasculitis symptoms, and how to decrease your risk of vasculitis complications.

Organ Failure

Blood vessels deliver blood and oxygen to all parts of the body. Organs (such as the lungs, liver and kidneys) need oxygen to function; without an adequate blood supply, these organs can’t work as well as they should. A lack of oxygen can cause organ failure and additional problems. IgA vasculitis is one example.

IgA vasculitis (also called Henoch-Schonlein purpura) affects the tiny blood vessels that supply the skin, joints, bowels and kidneys. Most people with this condition recover fully, but some experience long-term kidney damage. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney diseases, up to 40% of adults with IgA vasculitis will develop chronic kidney disease or kidney failure within 15 years of diagnosis.

If you have vasculitis, your healthcare team will carefully monitor your organ function and overall health. If you notice any new or unusual symptoms, notify your healthcare provider. Signs and symptoms of kidney failure, for instance, may include decreased urination, swollen feet and legs, and fatigue.

Medical treatment of vasculitis can decrease the risk of organ failure.

Blood Clots and Aneurysms

When the walls of blood vessels are inflamed, the inside channel (lumen) of the vessel narrows. Picture a garden hose: If the hose walls suddenly thicken, the inside (“lumen”) of the hose becomes significantly smaller.

Normally, blood flows freely through the veins and arteries. When vessels are narrowed, though, it’s easier for a blood clot to block blood flow. And if blood can’t get through, essential oxygen won’t get wherever it was supposed to go. Lack of oxygen causes tissue death. So, if a blood clot stops or slows the flow of blood to a foot, that foot will eventually show signs of compromised circulation. It may look pale and feel cool to the touch. Without treatment, the tissues of the foot will die. Gangrene is possible; amputation may be necessary.

Blood clots can also cause heart attacks, stroke, and kidney damage.

Inflamed blood vessels aren’t as strong as healthy blood vessels. They can leak or burst. An aneurysm is a swollen, weakened part of an artery; it looks a bit like a balloon. If an aneurysm bursts, or ruptures, it can cause serious problems, including internal bleeding, stroke or death.

Vision Loss

Vision changes, including blurred or double vision, are common symptoms of giant cell arteritis, a type of vasculitis. (Other symptoms include headaches, jaw pain, and scalp tenderness). Without treatment, these vision changes can progress to complete vision loss.

If you experience any sudden changes in your vision, contact your healthcare provider immediately. Treatment can save your eyesight.

Nervous System Damage

If vasculitis affects the blood vessels that supply the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves, you may experience:

  • Headaches
  • Weakness or paralysis of the arms or legs
  • Difficulty talking

It’s best to seek medical attention as soon as you notice any of these symptoms. Without treatment, these symptoms may worsen: Increased weakness, paralysis, dementia and stroke are possible.

Vasculitis Prognosis

According to the American College of Rheumatology, “the outcome for patients with vasculitis is often good,” thanks to the availability of effective treatments. You can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome—and decrease the risk of vasculitis complications—by working with a doctor experienced in treating vasculitis, reporting symptoms to your doctor, and following your plan of care.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 May 18
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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