Behcet’s disease is a rare autoimmune disease. It causes damage to your blood vessels that can lead to sores in the mouth, rashes, and other symptoms. The severity of the disease varies from person to person.

Behcet’s disease is a chronic condition. Symptoms may temporarily go into remission, only to return at a later time. Symptoms can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes.

Read on to learn more about this condition.

Did you know?

Behcet’s disease is pronounced beh-SHETS and was named after Dr. Hulusi Behcet, a Turkish dermatologist.

The earliest symptoms of Behcet’s disease are sores inside the mouth. They look like canker sores. The sores usually heal within a few weeks.

Somewhat less common than mouth sores are genital sores. They appear on about 3 out of 4 people with Behcet’s disease. Sores can appear elsewhere on the body, especially the face and neck.

Behcet’s disease may also affect your eyes. You may experience

  • swelling in one or both eyes
  • vision problems
  • eye redness
  • sensitivity to light

Other symptoms include:

  • joint pain and swelling
  • digestive problems, including abdominal pain and diarrhea
  • inflammation in the brain, leading to headaches

The symptoms of Behcet’s disease are all related to inflammation of your blood vessels. Doctors still don’t fully understand what causes the inflammation. It may be that you inherited an immune system disorder that affects your arteries and veins. Behcet’s disease is not contagious.

The causes of Behcet’s disease aren’t known, so it’s difficult to determine who is most at risk. People who have one kind of autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, are at higher risk for other autoimmune diseases. That means that you may be at increased risk for Behcet’s disease if you have another autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the body’s immune system incorrectly attacks healthy cells as if it was fighting an infection.

Behcet’s disease affects both men and women. It’s more commonly seen in men in the Middle East, and women in the United States. A person of any age can be affected, though symptoms tend to first show up in people in their 30s and 40s.

Behcet’s disease is most common is Turkey, with the condition affecting between 80 and 370 out of 100,000 people. In the United States, there is about 1 case for every 170,000 people, or less than 200,000 people total across the country.

One of the challenges in diagnosing Behcet’s disease is that the symptoms seldom appear at the same time. Mouth sores, skin rashes, and eye inflammation can also be symptoms of several other health problems.

Doctors also have no single test for diagnosing Behcet’s disease. Your doctor may diagnose you with Behcet’s disease if mouth sores appear three times within a year, and any two of the following symptoms develop:

  • genital sores that appear and then disappear
  • skin sores
  • positive skin prick, in which red bumps appear on the skin when it’s pricked with a needle; this means your immune system is overreacting to a stimulus
  • eye inflammation that affects vision

Treatment for Behcet’s disease depends on the severity of your condition. Mild cases may be treated with anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). Medicine may only be needed when you’re having a flare-up. You may not need to take any medication at all when the disease is in remission.

Topical ointments containing corticosteroids may be helpful for treating sores on your skin. Mouth rinses with corticosteroids may help reduce the pain of mouth sores and help them fade more quickly. Likewise, eye drops with corticosteroids or other anti-inflammatory medications may ease your discomfort if your eyes are affected.

A strong anti-inflammatory drug called colchicine (Colcrys) is sometimes prescribed in serious cases. Colchicine is usually prescribed to treat gout. It may be particularly helpful in easing joint pain associated with Behcet’s disease. Colchicine and other strong anti-inflammatory drugs may be needed in between flare-ups to help limit damage caused by your symptoms.

Other drugs that may be prescribed in between flare-ups include immunosuppressive medications, which help keep your immune system from attacking healthy tissue. Some examples of immunosuppressive drugs include:

  • azathioprine (Azasan, Imuran)
  • cyclosporine (Sandimmune)
  • cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Neosar)

Resting during flare-ups is important to help limit their severity. When symptoms are in remission, exercise regularly and follow a healthy diet.

Stress is a common trigger for autoimmune diseases, so learning relaxation strategies may help reduce the number of flare-ups you experience. View our list of simple ways to reduce stress.

You should also work closely with your doctors on ways to help manage your health and respond quickly when flare-ups appear. Having Behcet’s disease often means working with several types of doctors, including:

  • rheumatologists, which are specialists in autoimmune diseases
  • dermatologists, which are specialists in skin problems
  • ophthalmologists, which are specialists in eye health
  • hematologists, which are specialists in blood disorders

You may also need to work with a pain management specialist, a vascular specialist, and other physicians, depending on the nature of your condition.

Behcet’s disease is an uncommon condition, so you may have trouble finding a support group in your area. There may be support groups for other autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, that may provide some comfort and helpful information. You may find other helpful resources at the American Behcet’s Disease Association website.

Most symptoms of Behcet’s disease are manageable and unlikely to cause permanent health complications. However, treating certain symptoms is important to avoid long-term problems. For example, if eye inflammation isn’t treated, you may be at risk of permanent vision loss.

Behcet’s disease is a disorder of the blood vessels, so serious vascular problems can also occur. This includes stroke, which occurs when blood flow to the brain is interrupted. Inflammation of the arteries and veins can also lead to the formation of blood clots.

Having Behcet’s disease shouldn’t affect your life expectancy. It’s mostly a matter of treating symptoms and maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle when you have the energy and are feeling good.

It’s important to work closely with your doctors. If you’re at a higher risk for stroke, for example, follow your doctor’s orders to control your blood pressure. If your eye health is at risk, keep up with your ophthalmologist appointments. Being proactive about your health is essential in living with an autoimmune disorder like Behcet’s disease.