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Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

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What is vasculitis?

Vasculitis is a term used to describe a series of conditions in which there is inflammation of the blood vessels.

Vasculitis can be primary (occurring on its own), or secondary (as a result of infection, or in association with another condition such as rheumatoid arthritis).

The effects might be transient or result in longer-term damage to the vasculature.

How common is vasculitis? (Epidemiology)

Vasculitis is rare. About 14,000 new cases are diagnosed in the UK each year.1 A UK general practice study found that the most common type - polymyalgia rheumatica (PR) - had an estimated cumulative prevalence (the number of people who had ever had the disease over a given period of time) of 2.27%. The corresponding figure for the next most common - giant cell arteritis (GCA) - was 0.41%.2

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Vasculitis causes (aetiology)

  • Idiopathic (45-55%).

  • Infection (15-20%) - eg, Henoch-Schönlein purpura, septic vasculitis, upper respiratory tract flares of granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA), polyarteritis nodosa (PAN).

  • Inflammatory disease (15-20%) - eg, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

  • Drug-induced (10-15%) - eg, sulfonamides, beta-lactams, quinolones, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), oral contraceptives, thiazides, anti-influenza vaccines. Chemicals such as insecticides and petroleum products.

  • Neoplastic (<5%) - eg, as a result of a paraproteinaemia or lymphoproliferative disorder.


Many attempts have been made to classify this group of diseases and several classifications are in existence. The Chapel Hill Consensus Conference (CHCC) broadly classified the causes of vasculitis into infective and non-infective and then went on to classify the non-infective causes further.3

Infective causes are considered as those where there is direct invasion by pathogens into the vascular wall, resulting in inflammation. Examples include rickettsial vasculitis, syphilitic aortitis and aspergillus arteritis.

For non-infective causes, the CHCC classified vasculitis into:

Large-vessel (eg, GCA)

Single-organ (eg, isolated aortitis)

Medium-vessel (eg, Kawasaki disease)

Systemic disease-associated (eg, rheumatoid)

Small-vessel (eg, immune complex)

Probably associated (eg, hepatitis B, hepatitis C)

Variable-vessel (eg, Behçet's disease)

The CHCC classification applies to vasculitides (the pleural of vasculitis) in which antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA) is present in the blood. This is known as ANCA-associated vasculitis (AAV).

The antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (ANCA)-associated vasculitides (AAV) are three separate conditions:4

  • Granulomatosis with polyangiitis (GPA - formerly known as Wegener's granulomatosis).

  • Microscopic polyangiitis (MPA).

  • Eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis (EGPA - previously known as Churg-Strauss syndrome).

Non-AAV usually occurs in conditions in which immune complex deposition occurs, (eg, Henoch-Schönlein purpura) or pan-neoplastic phenomena.5

Localised, single-organ vasculitides encompass a group of rare conditions in which there is no evidence of concomitant systemic vasculitis.6

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Vasculitis symptoms

Vasculitis can affect any system, producing a wide range of symptoms. Although unspecific symptoms such as arthralgia and lethargy may be present for some time, frequently the first noticeable sign of a vasculitis will be as a skin lesion and will therefore present as such.

Small-vessel vasculitis

(Sometimes referred to as hypersensitivity vasculitis or cutaneous leukocytoclastic vasculitis (LCV))

Medium-sized vessel vasculitis

Large-vessel vasculitis

(ie aorta and major branches)


Palpable purpura 1-3 mm (may join to form plaques ± ulcer)

Tiny papules

Splinter haemorrhages



Livedo reticularis (rare)


Digital infarcts


Livedo reticularis

Papulo-necrotic lesions

(damage to the renal vessels)

End-organ ischaemia (eg, TIA/CVE)



Dissection ± haemorrhage or rupture

Differential diagnosis

Henoch-Schönlein purpura

Cryoglobulinaemic vasculitis - idiopathic, hepatitis C

Drug hypersensitivity reactions

Infections (eg, beta-haemolytic streptococcus, viral hepatitis, HIV)

Collagen vascular disease (eg, rheumatoid arthritis, Sjögren's syndrome, SLE)

Inflammatory bowel disease

(eg, hairy cell leukaemia)

Causes of larger-vessel vasculitis (uncommon)

GPA vasculitis

Churg-Strauss syndrome

Polyarteritis nodosa

Kawasaki disease


Behçet's disease,

Rheumatoid arthritis

Infections (eg, tuberculosis)

Erythema induratum (of Bazin)

Kawasaki disease

Behçet's disease

Rheumatoid arthritis

Syphilis and tuberculosis

Aorta, particularly GCA and
Takayasu's arteritis

Diagnosis of the skin lesion can provide information as to what calibre of vessel may be involved, potential diagnosis and where else in the body evidence of vasculitis should be sought.7 8

Full history should be taken, particularly with respect to:

  • Length of symptoms/signs.

  • Recent illness.

  • Recent exposure to drugs, vaccines and chemicals.

  • Other symptoms - eg, arthralgia, cough, ENT symptoms, numbness and paraesthesia.

  • Detailed review of all systems.

In view of the systemic nature of many vasculitic diseases, a complete physical examination should be carried out, including CNS and ENT examination.


Investigations should be tailored to the possible cause. For all patients suspected of having a vasculitic lesion, consider:

  • FBC and differential cell count.

  • U&Es.

  • LFTs.

  • Inflammatory markers.

  • Urine culture, microscopy.

  • Urine dip test for glucose, protein and blood.

  • Hepatitis serology (types B and C are associated with PAN and mixed cryoglobulinaemia respectively).

  • Cryoglobulins.

  • Complement levels.

  • Rheumatoid factor.

  • CXR.

Also consider:

  • Echocardiogram and blood cultures if there is cardiac murmur present.

  • Antinuclear antibodies (ANAs) if there is medium-sized vessel involvement and any suggestion of connective tissue disease.

  • Skin biopsy taken during the acute stage.

  • Imaging - the use of imaging is a relatively new approach but MRI and colour Doppler ultrasonography both have potential in diagnosis of large-vessel vasculitis.9

Differential diagnosis

There are several other conditions which may mimic cutaneous vasculitis and these must be considered when arriving at a diagnosis. Some of the more common ones include:

Vasculitis treatment and management

The treatment will vary considerably according to the underlying cause and the severity of symptoms and their duration. It may include:

  • Avoiding the precipitating factor, such as drugs or chemicals.

  • In general, corticosteroids are administered to control acute symptoms and laboratory evidence of systemic inflammation. After control is achieved, attempts may be made to taper dosing over a month.

  • Options such as immunosuppression with cyclophosphamide, azathioprine, methotrexate or tumour necrosis factor blockade may be used.

  • For ANCA-associated vasculitis, European guidelines recommend the use of mycophenolate mofetil.8

  • Use of plasmapheresis or intravenous immunoglobulin are options for refractory vasculitis.

  • There is increasing evidence for biological agents in vasculitis.10

  • Morbidity due to cumulative corticosteroid dose (as well as toxicity from immunosuppression) must be weighed in the long-term plan of care.


Occasionally, surgery might be indicated. The aims of this depend on the area affected but may be to open up or divert blood flow around an area of blockage, to take a sample (biopsy) or to repair an area of organ damage.

Examples include:

  • Stenting of stenotic vessels, which is increasingly used. Balloon dilatation has also been used to improve renovascular flow.

  • Patients with GPA may develop subglottic stenosis, which is amenable to balloon dilatation.


  • ESR may be used as a marker of disease activity.

  • Patients with elevated cytoplasmic antineutrophil cytoplasmic antibody (c-ANCA) titres may have normal levels during periods of disease control and increasing ones with disease activity.


This is related to the degree of end-organ involvement.

The prognosis of ANCA-associated vasculitis has been transformed in recent years. Once it was a set of invariably acute and fatal conditions, but these disorders are currently considered to be chronic diseases. This change is largely attributable to earlier diagnosis and the use of immunotherapeutics. However, patients still experience premature mortality, relapse, comorbid ill health and poor quality of life.


Complications are varied and are dependent on the underlying cause, size of vessel and organs affected. They may include:

  • Renal insufficiency.

  • Digital gangrene.

  • Pulmonary haemorrhage.

  • CNS infarction.

  • Arterial or venous thrombosis.

  • Subglottic stenosis.

Further reading and references

  • Cutaneous vasculitis; DermNet NZ
  • Brogan P, Eleftheriou D; Vasculitis update: pathogenesis and biomarkers. Pediatr Nephrol. 2018 Feb;33(2):187-198. doi: 10.1007/s00467-017-3597-4. Epub 2017 Aug 7.
  • Torp CK, Bruner M, Keller KK, et al; Vasculitis therapy refines vasculitis mechanistic classification. Autoimmun Rev. 2021 Jun;20(6):102829. doi: 10.1016/j.autrev.2021.102829. Epub 2021 Apr 16.
  • Guggenberger KV, Bley TA; Imaging in Vasculitis. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2020 Jun 19;22(8):34. doi: 10.1007/s11926-020-00915-6.
  1. Watts R et al; Rheumatology Volume 53, Issue suppl 1Pp. i187, 2016.
  2. Yates M, Graham K, Watts RA, et al; The prevalence of giant cell arteritis and polymyalgia rheumatica in a UK primary care population. BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2016 Jul 15;17:285. doi: 10.1186/s12891-016-1127-3.
  3. Jennette JC, Falk RJ, Bacon PA, et al; 2012 revised International Chapel Hill Consensus Conference Nomenclature of Vasculitides. Arthritis Rheum. 2013 Jan;65(1):1-11. doi: 10.1002/art.37715.
  4. Yates M, Watts R; ANCA-associated vasculitis. Clin Med (Lond). 2017 Feb;17(1):60-64. doi: 10.7861/clinmedicine.17-1-60.
  5. McKinney EF, Willcocks LC, Broecker V, et al; The immunopathology of ANCA-associated vasculitis. Semin Immunopathol. 2014 Jul;36(4):461-78. doi: 10.1007/s00281-014-0436-6. Epub 2014 Jul 24.
  6. Martins-Martinho J, Dourado E, Khmelinskii N, et al; Localized Forms of Vasculitis. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2021 Jul 1;23(7):49. doi: 10.1007/s11926-021-01012-y.
  7. Kluger N, Frances C; Cutaneous vasculitis and their differential diagnoses. Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2009 Jan-Feb;27(1 Suppl 52):S124-38.
  8. EULAR/ERA-EDTA recommendations for the management of ANCA-associated vasculitis; European League Against Rheumatism (2016)
  9. Miller A, Chan M, Wiik A, et al; An approach to the diagnosis and management of systemic vasculitis. Clin Exp Immunol. 2010 May;160(2):143-60. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2249.2009.04078.x. Epub 2010 Jan 12.
  10. Chen KR, Carlson JA; Clinical approach to cutaneous vasculitis. Am J Clin Dermatol. 2008;9(2):71-92.
  11. Basu N, Karabayas M, Pusey C; Prognosis and future developments in vasculitis. Best Pract Res Clin Rheumatol. 2018 Feb;32(1):148-165. doi: 10.1016/j.berh.2018.08.011. Epub 2018 Sep 22.

Article history

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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