Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease that can affect any organ, but especially your lungs, lymph nodes and skin.
The inflammation usually starts as tiny grain-like bumps, known as granulomas. These lumps are actually microscopic clumps of inflammatory cells that group together. When the group gets too large in a particular organ, the granuloma can interfere with how that organ functions.
Nobody knows exactly what causes sarcoidosis, but the condition may result from the body’s immune system responding to something in the environment. Bacteria, viruses or chemicals may trigger the disease in people who inherited genes that increase the chance of developing the condition.
Anyone can develop sarcoidosis, but it occurs more frequently in people aged 20 to 50. It is also more common in African Americans, especially women, and in people whose ancestors are from Northern Europe.
Many people with this condition do not experience symptoms. About one-third of all people with this condition experience non-specific symptoms, such as:
- Night sweats
- Weight loss
- Feelings of malaise or ill health
This condition affects many body systems. Specific symptoms can develop depending on the location of the granulomas. One in four people with the condition will develop granulomas in the skin, which can cause red, raised bumps on the legs or arms, discoloration of the nose, cheeks, lips and small brownish, painless patches of skin. The condition affects the lungs in about 90 percent of people, who experience a cough that will not go away, chest pain and shortness of breath, especially with activity.
Granulomas can appear in the heart, resulting in a weak or irregular heartbeat that leads to shortness of breath and swelling in the legs. Depending on the location of cell clumps, they can cause joint pain, sinus pain and nervous system problems, such as headaches, visual problems, weakness or numbness of an arm or leg.
Doctors can look for granulomas using chest x-rays. A biopsy can help determine whether the lump is sarcoidosis or something else. Pulmonary function tests evaluate how well your lungs function to find out if the granulomas are interfering with the way you breathe.
There is no cure for this condition. Fortunately, the disease goes away on its own in about half of all cases. It can last for years in other cases, and may even cause organ damage if the cell groups grow too large or interfere with the organ’s function.
Not everyone who has this disease needs treatment. In fact, most people require little or no treatment at all. Some patients require intensive treatment, however, especially if the disease affects the lungs, heart, eyes or nervous system. The goal of treatment is to control symptoms or improve function of organs affected by granulomas. The main treatment is prednisone, a type of steroid.