What is vasculitis?
Vasculitis is an immune system disorder that causes the blood vessels to become inflamed and swollen. It can affect any part of the body, including the kidneys.
There are different types of vasculitis affecting different-sized blood vessels – small, medium or large.
Vasculitis affects around 2,000 people a year in the UK. Some types of vasculitis, like Kawasaki disease, are more common in children. Others, such as giant cell arteritis, are usually diagnosed in adults. For information about the different types of vasculitis see Vasculitis UK.
What are the signs and symptoms of vasculitis?
The symptoms of vasculitis can vary depending on the part of the body that is affected.
- Kidneys – blood (haematuria) or protein (proteinuria) in the urine
- Skin – rash
- Respiratory tract – nosebleeds, coughing up blood
- Muscles and joints – pain or swelling in the affected area
- Gastrointestinal tract – abdominal pain, blood in the stools (poo)
- Nervous system – headache, tinnitus, vision problems, increased risk of stroke
- Heart and arteries – high blood pressure, increased risk of heart attack
Other more general symptoms include:
- loss of appetite and weight loss
What causes vasculitis?
Vasculitis occurs when the body’s immune system attacks the blood vessels instead of protecting them from disease. This causes the blood vessels to become inflamed, which can affect how well the organs that they link to work.
Vasculitis can be triggered by an infection, a reaction to a medication, or as a result of another condition such as arthritis. However, for some people the cause of their vasculitis is not known.
Mutations or abnormalities in several genes have been found in people with vasculitis, but this may not be the cause of the condition as these variations can also occur in people without the condition.
How is vasculitis diagnosed?
Vasculitis is usually diagnosed by a physical examination, a detailed medical history, and a blood test. In some cases, an X-ray or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will be used. A urine test may show signs of kidney damage.
Does vasculitis affect other parts of the body?
Vasculitis can affect any part of the body. The effects can vary depending on the location of the affected blood vessels.
Does vasculitis run in families?
It is thought that vasculitis occurs because of the interaction between a genetic predisposition (a tendency to develop a certain condition) and environmental factors. This means that some people are more likely to develop vasculitis because of their specific genes. However, it does not mean that they have inherited the condition from their parents or that they will pass it on to their own children.
How is vasculitis treated?
Some types of vasculitis do not need any treatment as the symptoms resolve over time by themselves.
If treatment is needed, it may be in the form of immunosuppressant medication like steroids. High doses may be given at first to put the vasculitis into remission. When symptoms have eased, lower doses may be tried to see if they are enough to keep everything stable and avoid a relapse.
Treatment may need to be continued for several years, with regular monitoring to make sure that the vasculitis remains under control.
The long-term outcome varies depending on the cause and type of vasculitis.
Where can I get more information or support about vasculitis?
For more information on vasculitis including its diagnosis, symptoms and treatment, visit Vasculitis UK.
Publication date: 11/2023
Review date: 11/2026
This resource was produced according to PIF TICK standards. PIF TICK is the UK’s only assessed quality mark for print and online health and care information. Kidney Care UK is PIF TICK accredited.