Sarcoidosis - Symptoms

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What are signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis?

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) and a cough that won't go away can be among the first symptoms of sarcoidosis. But sarcoidosis can also show up suddenly with the appearance of skin rashes. Red bumps (erythema nodosum) on the face, arms, or shins and inflammation of the eyes are also common symptoms and signs.

It is not unusual, however, for sarcoidosis symptoms to be more general. Weight loss, fatigue, night sweats, fever, or just an overall feeling of ill health can also be clues to the disease.

Signs and symptoms that suggest possible sarcoidosis

In addition to the lungs and lymph nodes, the body organs more likely than others to be affected by sarcoidosis are the liver, skin, heart, nervous system, and kidneys, in that order of frequency. Patients can have symptoms related to the specific organ affected, they can have only general symptoms, or they can be without any symptoms whatsoever. Symptoms also can vary according to how long the illness has been under way, where the granulomas are forming, how much tissue has become affected, and whether the granulomatous process is still active.

Even when there are no symptoms, a doctor can sometimes detect signs of sarcoidosis during a routine examination, usually a chest X-ray, or when checking out another complaint. The patient's age and race or ethnic group can raise an additional red flag that a sign or symptom of illness could be related to sarcoidosis. Enlargement of the salivary or tear glands and cysts in bone tissue are also among sarcoidosis signals.

The lungs are usually the first site involved in sarcoidosis. Indeed, about nine out of 10 sarcoidosis patients have some type of lung problem, with nearly one-third of these patients showing some respiratory symptoms -- usually coughing, either dry or with phlegm, and dyspnea. Occasionally, patients have chest pain and a feeling of tightness in the chest.

It is thought that sarcoidosis of the lungs begins with inflammation of the alveoli (alveolitis), the tiny sac-like air spaces in the lungs where carbon dioxide and oxygen are exchanged. Alveolitis either clears up spontaneously or leads to granuloma formation. Eventually, fibrosis can form, causing the lung to stiffen and making breathing even more difficult.

Eye disease occurs in about 20%-30% of patients with sarcoidosis, particularly in children who get the disease. Almost any part of the eye can be affected -- the membranes of the eyelids, cornea, outer coat of the eyeball (sclera), retina, and lens. The eye involvement can start with no symptoms at all or with reddening or watery eyes. In a few cases, cataracts, glaucoma, and blindness can result.

The skin is affected in about 20% of sarcoidosis patients. Skin sarcoidosis is usually marked by small, raised patches on the face. Occasionally, the patches are purplish in color and larger. Patches can also appear on limbs, face, and buttocks.

Other symptoms include erythema nodosum, mostly on the legs and often accompanied by arthritis in the ankles, elbows, wrists, and hands. Erythema nodosum usually goes away, but other skin problems can persist. Virtually any organ or organ system can be involved in sarcoidosis.

Occasionally, sarcoidosis can lead to nervous system problems. For example, sarcoid granulomas can appear in the brain, spinal cord, and facial and optic nerves. Facial paralysis and other symptoms of nerve damage call for prompt treatment with medications such as high doses of cortisone (see below). Rarely, the heart may be involved in sarcoidosis, which can be a serious problem. People with sarcoidosis can have depression that is unrelated to the activity of the disease and is felt to be, in part, because of a misdirected immune system.

Symptoms can appear suddenly and then disappear. Sometimes, however, they can continue over a lifetime.

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