Inflammation of the blood vessels

Vasculitis is a general term that describes the inflammation of blood vessels, inflammation being the way that the body responds to injury. Where the cause is unknown, it is referred to as primary vasculitis. Secondary vasculitis occurs as a result of an underlying condition, such as Churg-Strauss Syndrome.

There are three phases of Churg-Strauss Syndrome, each with its own set of symptoms. It should be noted, however, that not every sufferer goes through all the stages, and that the mildness or intensity of symptoms varies from person to person.

The allergy stage is usually, but not always, the first, and is characterised by a number of allergic reactions such as asthma.

The hypereosinophilic stage is marked by an abnormally high number of the white blood cells known as eosinophils. Although their function is to help your immune system fight off infections, eosinophils can attack healthy tissue when present in excessive amounts.

When blood vessels are attacked in this way they become inflamed. This leads to the third and most serious stage of Churg-Strauss Syndrome, i.e. the vasculitic stage.

When a blood vessel is inflamed it can either narrow, reducing the supply of oxygen and other nutrients to vital organs and nerves, or, occasionally, it can weaken and stretch which increases the risk of aneurysms. The general effect of the inflammation is to make the sufferer feel tired and unwell; additional symptoms will depend on which organs have been damaged and to what extent.

For example, it is quite common for blood vessels supplying nerves in the arms and legs to be affected, causing heaviness in the limbs and numbness in the hands and feet. Other organ specific manifestations might include rashes on the skin, sinusitis and increased nasal discharge, arthritis of the joints, breathlessness caused by inflamed blood vessels in the lungs, irregular heartbeat, stomach or abdominal pain and blood in the urine.

Treatment for vasculitis is usually very successful, especially if started early. A course of high dosage corticosteroids, or steroids, is normally prescribed to begin with, then slowly reduced until a point is reached where they may be withdrawn altogether. However, where major organs have been affected, or symptoms have not responded sufficiently well to the steroids, it may be necessary to compliment them with immunosuppressants. Some of these drugs are the same ones that are used in chemotherapy, but the quantities here are much reduced as their role is simply to prevent the eosinophils from attacking healthy tissue.

Even when remission has been achieved, it is not uncommon for relapses to occur. Treatment is the same as for the original diagnosis, and the disorder should be brought under control as before.

Living with a chronic condition such as this can be very stressful. Sufferers should always discuss how they are feeling with their doctor, who will be able to recommend further treatment, if necessary, to improve their quality of life. Joining a support group can also be tremendously rewarding.

Even though there is no cure for vasculitis, close attention to symptoms and first rate medical care should ensure that people who have to live with it can still enjoy a very good quality of life.