Internist Explains Disease Harold Ramis Had

March 3, 2014 Updated: April 28, 2016

The death of actor-director Harold Ramis from complications of vasculitis brought the condition into the spotlight. Vasculitis is a term for a variety of conditions in which the blood vessels become inflamed and damaged. Manhattan internist Dr. Marina Gafanovich explains what is and is not known about vasculitis.

Epoch Times: What causes vasculitis? 

Dr. Marina Gafanovich: The exact cause of vasculitis is unknown. It occurs when your immune system attacks your blood vessels by mistake. There are several theories as to what triggers your immune system to attack. 

An infection, either a recent one or one that is chronic, may trigger vasculitis. Your body may also react poorly to some medications, leading the immune system to mistakenly attack your blood vessels. Blood-cancer sufferers sometimes suffer from vasculitis as well. 

Epoch Times: Is vasculitis related to autoimmune disorders?

Dr. Gafanovich: Many autoimmune disorders are linked to vasculitis as well. Disorders, such as scleroderma, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis are all examples of such autoimmune disorders. These disorders occur when the body’s immune system makes proteins that attack and damage the body’s own tissues and cells. 

While not conclusively a cause of vasculitis, all of these things are linked to vasculitis due to the ties between the immune system and the impact an attack can have on the blood vessels and organs. 

Epoch Times: Is it always life threatening?

Dr. Gafanovich: Vasculitis is very rarely life threatening. The major risk of vasculitis comes from how severely it affects different organs. When diagnosed and treated early, most patients will go into remission (the vasculitis will go dormant). However, even when in remission, patients must be aware of and deal with any flareups that occur. Flareups are when the symptoms arise again. 

For patients who don’t go into remission, the vasculitis is considered chronic. The danger of chronic vasculitis is the ongoing trauma to organs. 

There are two major times when vasculitis is fatal. First, if the condition goes undiagnosed or untreated, the body cannot withstand the constant inflammation of blood vessels, and the organs eventually shut down. 

Second, if the patient does not respond to any treatment, the organs suffer and eventually shut down. These are rare situations though. Most patients with vasculitis respond to treatment and live normal lives.

Epoch Times: What are the symptoms of vasculitis?

Dr. Gafanovich: The symptoms of vasculitis include a wide range of reactions from the inflammation of the blood vessels. 

These symptoms include weakness and feeling down (malaise), fever, rapid weight loss, persistent headaches, pain while chewing or swallowing, joint and muscle aches and pains, confusion and forgetfulness that leads to dementia, paralysis or numbness in the arms or legs, double vision, blurred vision and other visual disturbances, seizures and convulsions, mini-strokes (medically known as transient ischemic attacks), and unusual rashes or skin discoloration. 

Symptoms can appear suddenly or grow over time, and a sufferer may not suffer all of them. They vary depending on what type of vasculitis is being experienced. 

A full medical history must be taken in order to determine if these symptoms are a result of vasculitis.

Epoch Times: What are the treatment options? 

Dr. Gafanovich: Each form of vasculitis has its own treatment options, which depend on several factors, including what organs are affected. 

Some forms of vasculitis, such as those that are a result of an allergic reaction, need no treatment and will usually go away on their own. 

The most common form of treatment is with steroids (corticosteroid medications), which help control the inflammation. Other forms of vasculitis need to be treated far more aggressively, such as with drugs commonly used to treat cancer patients, known as chemotherapy or cytotoxic drugs.

Epoch Times: So some patients with vasculitis get chemo?

Dr. Gafanovich: The dosage of these drugs is typically far lower than those used in cancer treatment. These drugs help control the inflammation by killing the immune system cells that are responsible for causing the inflammation. 

Less toxic drugs, aimed at dampening the immune system response as opposed to killing the cells, are also used. Several drugs that alter the immune system response (as opposed to suppressing it) are currently being tested. 

Finally, life adjustments can also help with treatment. These include a healthy diet and regular exercise. 

Epoch Times: What treatments are most effective?

Dr. Gafanovich: Prompt and accurate diagnosis are the keys to effective treatment of vasculitis. Most people live a full and normal life after successful treatment. However, many patients have long-term impacts from vasculitis, such as organ damage, and should remain under the long-term supervision of a physician. 

Early diagnosis and treatment prevents permanent organ damage. Organ damage has a great impact on how effective treatment is, so the fewer organs damaged, the greater likelihood of treatment success. Those who suffer from the more severe types of vasculitis will need to manage medication treatment over the long term. 

The treatments such as steroids are very effective but have side effects that must be handled as well. Weight gain and liver damage must all be monitored by a physician. 

Patients who have to receive treatment related to altering their immune system will have to take care to avoid infections that come from a suppressed immune system. 

Again, diet and exercise can have a great impact on the success of treatment. 

Epoch Times: Who is susceptible to vasculitis?

Dr. Gafanovich: People of all genders and races are susceptible to vasculitis. It is not contagious. Those who suffer from certain medical conditions, such as Hepatitis B or C infections, seem to be very susceptible to vasculitis. Smokers also have an increased risk of suffering vasculitis. Additionally, those who suffer from certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus have an increased risk of vasculitis. 

Epoch Times: Is there a way to prevent it?

Dr. Gafanovich: There is no known way to prevent vasculitis, so readers should take note of the listed symptoms and risks and communicate any concerns to a physician. 

There are several clinical trials [currently being done] to find new medications and treatments for vasculitis. A clinical trial is a research study that explores whether a medical strategy, treatment, or device is safe and effective for humans.

These trials may hold the key to solving the mysteries behind vasculitis and offering patients treatment avenues that are not yet available to the general public. 

Dr.Gafanovich has a private practice on the Upper East Side