What is pulmonary vasculitis?

Pulmonary vasculitis refers to inflammation and damage to the blood vessels in the lungs. It is a rare problem that is more likely to affect young children. Pulmonary vasculitis can be an acute reaction to a respiratory tract infection or a chronic condition related to an autoimmune disorder. Symptoms can vary, but many patients experience shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pains. Treatment is usually aimed at removing the underlying cause with medication, as well as stopping the acute inflammation with inhaled corticosteroids.

The exact mechanisms by which vasculitis occurs in the lungs are not always clear, and many cases are considered idiopathic. However, in some cases, laboratory tests and physical exams may reveal an underlying problem. Some fungal, bacterial, and parasitic agents are capable of causing damage to blood vessels in the respiratory tract and lungs. Asthma and another autoimmune condition called Wegener's granulomatosis can also be responsible for vasculitis when abnormal signals from the immune system attack healthy blood vessels.

Many people who have acute pulmonary vasculitis develop symptoms quickly, over the course of a few hours or days. As an infection spreads through the lungs, an individual may have a high fever, weakness, body aches, and chest tightness. He or she may wheeze, cough, and have trouble breathing deeply. Chronic vasculitis can cause similar symptoms, although they tend to be more subtle at first and gradually worsen. If either type of pulmonary vasculitis is not recognized and treated in the early stages, it can lead to significant tissue damage, bleeding, and a systemic reaction causing complications in the heart and other organs.

A pediatrician or emergency room doctor can diagnose pulmonary vasculitis by evaluating symptoms, collecting blood samples, and taking diagnostic images of the chest. CT scans and ultrasounds may reveal bleeding or signs of inflammation and obvious damage to blood vessels. Blood samples are also tested for the presence of infectious bacteria or fungi. If diagnostic tests are inconclusive, an angiography study may be performed in which an X-ray camera tube is inserted into a lung to carefully inspect the tissue.

Most of the immediate symptoms of pulmonary vasculitis can be relieved with inhaled corticosteroids and oral anti-inflammatory medications. A patient may need to wear an oxygen mask in the hospital if they have significant breathing problems. Antibiotics or antifungals are prescribed as needed, and immune-suppressing medications may be necessary if the condition is autoimmune. Most people can recover from attacks of pulmonary vasculitis and avoid major complications in the future if they seek prompt treatment.

Go up