In a healthy person, the immune system protects the body from harmful substances that can cause disease or infection. This defense system causes inflammation that goes away when the harmful substance is destroyed. In people with sarcoidosis, the inflammation does not go away, and instead cells develop into tiny clumps called granulomas. If too many granulomas form in an organ, the organ will not be able to work properly.
Sarcoidosis most often affects the lungs and lymph nodes, but it can also affect the eyes, skin, kidneys, heart, bones and other organs.
What causes sarcoidosis?
The exact cause (or causes) of sarcoidosis is not known. Experts think that sarcoidosis develops when the immune system tries to protect the body from something dangerous. Genes may also play a role in causing sarcoidosis.
What are the signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis?
The symptoms of sarcoidosis vary depending on which organs are affected and how long the disease has been present. Many people who have sarcoidosis have no symptoms or mild symptoms including:
- night sweats
- unexpected weight loss
- eye problems
- lumps or areas of skin that are discolored on the back, legs, arms, scalp, nose or eyes
- enlarged liver, spleen, salivary glands
When the disease affects the lungs, signs may include: shortness of breath, cough, wheezing.
When the disease affects the lymph nodes, signs may include: enlarged, tender lymph nodes in the neck, chest, armpit or groin.
Who is at risk of developing sarcoidosis?
Sarcoidosis can affect anyone. It is more common among African-Americans and Northern Europeans. It is also more common in women than in men. The disease usually develops between the ages of 20 and 50.
How do I find out if I have sarcoidosis?
A health care provider will diagnose sarcoidosis based on medical history, physical exam and other tests such as chest x-rays (which take a picture of the inside of the chest) and lung function tests.
What is the treatment for sarcoidosis?
Sarcoidosis sometimes goes away on its own. Whether a person needs treatment and what type of treatment depends on symptoms and which organs are affected. The goals of treatment are to make symptoms better, improve the way organs work, and reduce the size of granulomas. A steroid called prednisone is the main treatment, which reduces inflammation. Other medicines used to treat sarcoidosis are hydroxychloroquine (for sarcoidosis that affects skin or brain) and methotrexate (for sarcoidosis that affects eyes, lungs, skin, joints).
Because it is possible for the disease to get worse without a person noticing, ongoing care by a health care provider is very important. A health care provider may use tests such as lung function tests and eye exams to make sure organs are not being damaged by the disease. Key suggestions for living with sarcoidosis include:
- keep lungs protected
- follow a treatment plan
- engage in physical activity
- follow a healthy diet
- maintain a strong support system