Sarcoidosis

Written by Valencia Higuera | Published on July 2, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Sarcoidosis

What Is Sarcoidosis?

Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease where granulomas (clumps of immune cells, usually macrophages) form in various organs. This causes organ inflammation. Doctors believe that sarcoidosis may be caused by an abnormal immune system reaction. This reaction may be stimulated by antigens, such as viruses, bacteria, or chemicals.

Areas of the body commonly affected by sarcoidosis include:

  • lymph nodes
  • lungs
  • eyes
  • skin
  • liver
  • heart
  • brain

The exact cause of sarcoidosis is unknown. However, possible causes and risk factors include:

  • having a prior infection
  • having a sensitivity to environmental factors, such as dust
  • being African-American
  • being female
  • having a family history of sarcoidosis

This condition is rare in children. Symptom onset is usually between the ages of 20 and 40.

Symptoms of Sarcoidosis

Some people with sarcoidosis do not have symptoms. However, general symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • weight loss
  • chronic joint pain
  • dry mouth
  • nosebleeds
  • abdominal swelling

Symptoms depend on which part of the body is affected by the disease. This disease commonly affects the lungs. Lung symptoms can include:

  • a dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain around the breast bone

Skin symptoms may include:

  • skin rash
  • skin sores
  • hair loss
  • raised scars

Nervous system symptoms may include:

  • seizures
  • facial weakness
  • headaches

Eye symptoms may include:

  • dry eyes
  • itchy eyes
  • eye pain
  • vision loss
  • burning sensation in the eyes
  • discharge from the eyes

Tests to Diagnose Sarcoidosis

It can be difficult to diagnose sarcoidosis. Symptoms can mimic those of other diseases, such as arthritis or cancer. If you have symptoms of sarcoidosis, your doctor will conduct a variety of tests to diagnose you.

Your doctor will first conduct a physical examination in order to:

  • check for skin bumps or a rash
  • look for swollen lymph nodes
  • listen to your lungs and heart
  • check for an enlarged liver or spleen

Based on the findings, your doctor may order additional diagnostic tests. These can include:

  • chest X-ray - to check for granulomas and swollen lymph nodes
  • chest CT scan - an imaging test that takes a cross-sectional pictures of your chest
  • lung function test - to determine whether your lungs are affected
  • biopsy - to take a tissue sample, which can be checked for granulomas

Your doctor may also order blood tests to check your kidney and liver function.

Treatment of Sarcoidosis

There is no cure for sarcoidosis. However, symptoms often improve without treatment. If your inflammation is severe, your doctor may prescribe medications, such as:

  • corticosteroids - to reduce inflammation
  • immunosuppressants - to decrease the immune system response

Treatment is more likely if the disease affects your:

  • eyes
  • lungs
  • heart
  • nervous system

The length of any therapy will vary. Some people take medication for one or two years. Others will be on medication for much longer.

Complications of Sarcoidosis

Approximately two-thirds of people diagnosed with sarcoidosis do not experience complications (Mayo Clinic, 2010). However, sarcoidosis can become chronic.

When complications are present, they may include:

  • lung infection
  • cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye)
  • glaucoma (increased fluid pressure inside the eyes)
  • blindness
  • kidney failure
  • abnormal heart beat
  • facial paralysis
  • infertility or difficulty conceiving

Rarely, sarcoidosis causes severe heart and lung damage. This may require an organ transplant.

It is important to contact your doctor if you have:

  • breathing difficulties
  • heart palpitations
  • changes in your vision or loss of vision
  • eye pain
  • sensitivity to light
  • facial numbness

These can be signs of dangerous complications.

Your doctor may recommend that you see an eye care professional, as this disease can affect the eyes without causing symptoms.

Outlook for Sarcoidosis

The outlook for sarcoidosis is positive. Many people live relatively healthy, active lives. Symptoms often improve with or without treatment in about three years.

When the disease affects the lungs, about 20 percent of sufferers develop lung damage. However, few people die from sarcoidosis. The overall death rate is less than five percent (PubMed Health, 2012).

Causes of death from sarcoidosis may include:

  • internal bleeding from the lung tissue
  • scarring or thickening of the lungs
  • heart failure
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