Vasculitis means inflammation of the blood vessels. This inflammation can damage the lining of the vessel and sometimes reduce blood flow or completely block it.

Although the causes of most types of vasculitis aren't known, an autoimmune disease may play a role. This is when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body's own tissues. Allergic reactions, infection with a virus, or even damage to blood vessels from the sun’s radiation may cause vasculitis.

There are several types of vasculitis. Each is distinguished by the size of the blood vessels involved, the organs involved, and the presence of antibodies called antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibodies (ANCAs).

Takayasu arteritis affects women under the age of 40 almost exclusively. Inflammation occurs in large blood vessels such as the artery leaving the heart (the aorta). People with this type of arteritis may feel weak, dizzy, and light-headed and have severe muscle pain. The arteries to the arms and legs can become so narrowed from the arteritis that it can be impossible to feel a pulse in the arms or legs, despite normal blood pressure.

Temporal arteritis affects medium to large vessels that supply blood to the head. When the inflammation targets the arteries in the neck, upper body, and arms, it is called giant cell arteritis.

Polyarteritis nodosa affects small and medium-sized arteries. Several groups of blood vessels may be affected, including the arteries that serve the kidneys, intestines, and heart. Exposure to the hepatitis B  virus has been strongly implicated as a cause of polyarteritis nodosa in some people. Polyarteritis nodosa is one of the few immune system diseases in which more men are affected than women.

Wegener granulomatosis is a rare form of vasculitis in which inflammation targets the blood vessels in the lungs, sinuses, and kidneys. Symptoms include coughing, a bloody discharge from the nose, breathing difficulty, chest pain, and blood in the urine. The ANCA test result is often positive.


Damage to blood vessel walls causes a slowdown in delivery of blood and oxygen to the tissues that the vessels supply. That harms those tissues, and the body systems that are supported by them. Consequently, the symptoms of vasculitis vary dramatically. Symptoms can include:

  • aching muscles and joints
  • fever
  • loss of appetite
  • nerve damage or muscle weakness
  • high blood pressure
  • skin ulcers
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhea
  • blood in the stool.


Your doctor can diagnose polyarteritis nodosa by performing a biopsy or by angiography, in which dye is injected into blood vessels so that any abnormalities can be seen on x-rays.

Treatment options

Treatment depends on the size, extent, and location of the affected blood vessels. The first step is to identify and remove things that might be causing the immune reaction, such as a new medication. In some cases, the vasculitis disappears without treatment.

Most types of arteritis respond well to corticosteroid drugs and immunosuppressive drugs. Other therapies include:

  • immunosuppressive drugs to treat Wegener granulomatosis
  • antiviral drugs to treat polyarteritis nodosa caused by hepatitis B
  • surgery to treat advanced forms of Takayasu arteritis
  • antibiotic drugs to treat skin vasculitis caused by bacteria.


As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.

No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

Free Healthbeat Signup

Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Thanks for visiting. Don't miss your FREE gift.

The Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness, is yours absolutely FREE when you sign up to receive Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Sign up to get tips for living a healthy lifestyle, with ways to fight inflammation and improve cognitive health, plus the latest advances in preventative medicine, diet and exercise, pain relief, blood pressure and cholesterol management, and more.

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Health Alerts from Harvard Medical School

Get helpful tips and guidance for everything from fighting inflammation to finding the best diets for weight loss...from exercises to build a stronger core to advice on treating cataracts. PLUS, the latest news on medical advances and breakthroughs from Harvard Medical School experts.

BONUS! Sign up now and
get a FREE copy of the
Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness

Harvard Health Publishing Logo

Stay on top of latest health news from Harvard Medical School.

Plus, get a FREE copy of the Best Diets for Cognitive Fitness.