About 20 different disorders comprise vasculitis. The various types of the condition are grouped according to the size of the blood vessels affected, falling into one of three general categories: large, medium, and small vessel vasculitis. In each type, an inflammation of the blood vessels disrupts blood flow to an area of the body and may result in loss of function of the affected organs and tissues.
Vasculitis can affect the body in many different ways, and symptoms vary by the size, type, and location of the affected blood vessels. For example, if you have vasculitis affecting the skin, you may notice a rash or discoloration. Vasculitis affecting the heart, however, can cause congestive heart failure.
Large vessel vasculitis affects the body’s large arteries, including the aorta and carotid arteries. Giant cell arteritis is a common form of large vessel vasculitis in adults older than age 50. It affects the temporal artery and can cause headaches, jaw or scalp pain, blurred or double vision, and sudden vision loss.
Takayasu arteritis is an inflammation of the aorta that often occurs in young women. It may cause numbness or coldness in the extremities, a reduced or absent pulse rate, high blood pressure, headaches, and vision changes.
Medium vessel vasculitis affects the medium blood vessels in the body. Buerger’s disease, for example, is an inflammation of the arteries and veins in the hands and feet that often occurs in smokers. This condition can lead to pain, thin and shiny skin, skin ulcers, and gangrene, which is when body tissue dies due to infection or reduced blood flow.
Polyarteritis nodosa is a type of medium vessel vasculitis that affects blood vessels in many different parts of the body, including the skin, heart, kidneys, peripheral nerves, muscles, and intestines. This type of vasculitis affects men more than women. People of any age can develop polyarteritis nodosa, however, it is predominantly found in adults aged 45 to 65 years old. It causes a rash called purpura, skin ulcers, muscle and joint pain, abdominal pain, and kidney problems.
Small vessel vasculitis affects the body’s small blood vessels. Antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies cause several types of small vessel vasculitis. Antibodies are proteins produced by the immune system that attack foreign objects, such as bacteria or viruses. Antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies, however, mistakenly attack white blood cells called neutrophils, leading to damage in the walls of the small blood vessels in tissues and organs.
The types of vasculitis caused by antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies include granulomatosis with polyangiitis; Churg-Strauss syndrome, also known as eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis; and microscopic polyangiitis.
Granulomatosis with polyangiitis is an inflammation of the small blood vessels of the nose, sinuses, ears, lungs, and kidneys. It can lead to bulging eyes, shortness of breath, pain in the joints or muscles, rashes, and fatigue. This type of vasculitis is common in middle-aged adults of northern European descent.
Churg-Strauss syndrome affects both men and women, is often associated with asthma, and causes severe inflammation of the small blood vessels. It can lead to reduced blood flow to vital organs and tissues throughout the body, including the heart, kidneys, skin, peripheral nervous system, muscles, bones, and the digestive tract.