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What is vasculitis?

Vasculitis means inflammation of the blood vessels, the tubes that carry blood around your body. There are three types of blood vessel which can be affected by vasculitis:

  • arteries – take blood from the heart to different parts of the body such as organs (for example kidneys) and tissues (for example skin)
  • veins – take blood back to the heart
  • capillaries – tiny vessels between the arteries and the veins where oxygen and other materials pass from the blood into the tissues. 

The organs and tissues in your body need a regular blood supply to work properly. Inflammation causes swelling of the blood vessel walls, reducing or even blocking the flow of blood to the tissues and organs. 

A normal artery and one that is inflamed as seen in vasculitis

Vasculitis can cause a range of symptoms and possible complications. The amount of damage vasculitis causes depends on which part of the body is affected. The larger the affected blood vessels, the more damage there may be; the more important the affected body tissue, the more serious the damage will be. 

The walls of affected blood vessels can swell and bulge (this is called an aneurysm) and may even burst, causing bleeding inside your body. Apart from the damage to the blood vessel itself, this can lead to damage in the tissues or organs which are supplied by the blood vessel.

Vasculitis can occur suddenly in someone who has previously been completely well – when it occurs on its own, doctors call this primary vasculitis. Vasculitis can also occur alongside other conditions (including rheumatoid arthritislupus or Sjögren's syndrome), in which case it's known as secondary vasculitis.

Read more about vasculitis in the Vasculitis Routemap, produced by Vasculitis UK.

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