Vasculitis Symptoms & Causes

What are the symptoms of vasculitis?

There’s no single set of symptoms for vasculitis, since different forms of this disease can affect different parts of the body. Broadly speaking, though, most children with vasculitis have symptoms of general illness, including:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • loss of appetite
  • aches all over

Symptoms that may indicate vasculitis is affecting a particular part of the body include:

  • purplish rashes that don’t blanch (fade) when you press on them
  • shortness of breath and/or chest pain
  • abdominal pain and/or bloating
  • joint and muscle pain
  • nerve problems (numbness, tingling)
  • blurring or loss of vision
  • headaches
  • blood in the urine

Because vasculitis attacks the blood vessels, it also has the potential to affect the organs and tissues that depend on those blood vessels for oxygen and other nutrients. This can cause complications ranging from relatively mild (skin ulcers) to very serious (organ failure).

The complications your child might face will depend on what type of vasculitis he has and which organs are involved. For instance:

  • Henoch-Schönlein purpura often targets blood vessels in the kidneys, raising the risk of kidney disease (nephritis).
  • Kawasaki disease tends to involve blood vessels around the heart, which in rare instances can cause such things as abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) or even heart attack.

Infection is also a potential complication for vasculitis patients -- partly because the immune system is already malfunctioning, but also because many vasculitis medications work by actually suppressing the immune system (which further lowers the body’s defenses against invaders like bacteria and viruses).

Your child’s doctor will be able to discuss specific complications with you in detail, as well as how they can be prevented or treated.

What causes vasculitis?

Vasculitis belongs to the family of autoimmune diseases, in which the body’s immune system is mistakenly attacking its own healthy cells and tissues. Researchers don’t yet understand exactly why this happens, but believe there is a combination of genetic and environmental factors at work.

Among the factors that seem to trigger certain kinds of vasculitis are infections, like hepatitis B and streptococcus; other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma; and cancers that affect the blood cells, like leukemia and lymphoma. However, many children who have these illnesses do not develop vasculitis -- which underscores the fact that its causes are complex and, so far, not fully known.

 

FAQs

Q: Why did my child get vasculitis?

A: We don’t know exactly why some children’s immune systems turn against their own bodies -- specifically their blood vessels, in the case of  vasculitis -- but researchers believe it’s caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. It’s important to remember that your child’s vasculitis wasn’t caused by anything you did, and there’s nothing you could have done to prevent it.
 

Q: Are my other children at risk for developing vasculitis? Should they be tested?

A: Despite the fact that genes probably play a role in vasculitis, it’s unusual for this illness to occur in more than one member of the same family. And testing to try to identify vasculitis in anyone isn’t recommended unless there are specific symptoms or medical problems that the test results can be weighed against.
 

Q: What kinds of doctors treat vasculitis?

A: The doctors who specialize in inflammatory diseases of the muscles, joints and connective tissues are called rheumatologists; they typically diagnose and set up the treatment plan for a child with vasculitis. However, other kinds of specialists may also be involved, including nephrologists (kidneys); pulmonologists (heart); neurologists (central nervous system); dermatologists (skin); and gastroenterologists (digestive tract).
 

Q: If my child is treated and his symptoms go away, does that mean he’s cured?

A: Vasculitis is considered a lifelong condition: While it can go into remission (that is, the disease is no longer active), it’s not “cured.” The symptoms may one day return (called relapse), or they may never come back -- much depends on the type of vasculitis your child has.


Q: Will my child need to be on a special diet?

A: There isn’t any evidence that eating specific foods or taking special supplements will actually change the course of this illness (that is, make it better or worse). But you can support your child’s overall good health by making sure he eats a balanced, “heart-healthy” diet: plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein. And load up on Vitamin D and calcium, especially if your child’s treatment includes corticosteroids, which can weaken bones.
 

Q: Will vasculitis affect how active my child is?

A:Broadly speaking, vasculitis can cause kids to tire more easily, and it’s important for them to rest when they need to. But you should always encourage your child to get regular exercise to help keep his body strong.


When to seek medical advice

The symptoms that often appear in early stages of vasculitis -- fever, fatigue, weight loss, muscle aches and so -- are by no means proof that your child has this disease. However, they do mean something is making him ill and needs medical attention. You should take your child to see his pediatrician, who will refer you to a pediatric rheumatologist if vasculitis is suspected.