Sarcoidosis is a rare condition in which groups of immune cells form lumps in various organs in the body. The exact cause is unknown, but it can affect any organ, particularly targeting the lungs. This inflammatory disease doesn’t always have symptoms, but we’ll discuss the signs to look out for, how it is diagnosed, and the treatments available.
What Is Sarcoidosis?
Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease where tiny cells called granulomas group together in different parts of the body, most commonly in the lymph nodes, lungs, and skin. You may be exposed to a bacterium, virus, or other toxin that causes your immune system to turn on, but for some reason not turn off, and these inflammatory cells begin to form. Sarcoidosis is very rare but the growths can affect organ function and overall structure. If chronic inflammation is allowed to persist, it can potentially lead to fibrosis, a condition in which organ tissue thickens and scars.
Sarcoidosis can affect almost any part of your body, most commonly your lymph nodes or lungs. It is known as pulmonary sarcoidosis if it affects your lungs, which is around 90% of cases diagnosed. Sarcoidosis can also appear in your spleen, heart, liver, brain, and eyes.
What Causes Sarcoidosis?
Sarcoidosis does not have one known cause, but your risk of developing this disease increases depending on your family history and genetics, race, and gender. It is seen more often in females, African Americans, and people in their 20s and 30s. Exposure to environmental factors like dust and chemicals or contracting an illness can combine with your genetic susceptibility to trigger the development of sarcoidosis, which recent studies have shown.
Many people who have sarcoidosis may show little signs of the disease, while others have more severe, disruptive symptoms. The location of sarcoidosis and the organs affected will also determine what symptoms you may experience. In general, signs of sarcoidosis include fever, weight loss, fatigue, and swollen lymph nodes.
If sarcoidosis targets your lungs, you may have pain in your chest, a dry cough that does not improve, shortness of breath, and a wheezy sound when you breathe in and out. If you notice skin issues like darker or lighter areas, growths under your skin, sores on your ears or nose, and a red or purple rash on your ankles or shins, you may have sarcoidosis.
Cardiac sarcoidosis signs include general symptoms of shortness of breath and chest pain, but you may also have fainting spells, irregular heartbeats, heart flutters, or heart swelling.
No matter where your sarcoidosis develops, if it continues to go untreated, the inflammation can cause scarring and organ damage. When this occurs in your lungs or heart, it can have grave consequences and become life-threatening very quickly.
Sarcoidosis can be challenging to diagnose, but a discussion of your family history and current symptoms combined with imaging tests, blood tests, and a physical exam can help reveal what may be going on. CT scans and X-rays can take a closer look at possible swelling or granulomas. There are also certain lung function tests that measure the oxygen levels and the volume of your lungs. Your doctor will try to rule out other diseases and conditions that may have similar signs by biopsing an area and performing additional tests.
Unfortunately, there is no cure for sarcoidosis, but in many cases, the inflammation will clear up on its own once the infection or threat to the body has passed. Deciding whether treatment is needed and what type will be most effective depends on your symptoms, the organs involved, and if those organs are functioning properly.
Treating sarcoidosis focuses on minimizing symptoms, preventing further issues, and improving your long-term outlook. You may work with a team of specialists depending on what organs are affected to monitor the parts of the body involved. A variety of medications are used to treat sarcoidosis symptoms. Immune system suppressant drugs help to counteract an immune system that is in overdrive and calm inflammation. Corticosteroids relieve inflammation as well and may be taken for a period of time. The most well known kind is prednisone, which is effective at reducing inflamed areas, however there can be several side effects. The other medication you may be prescribed is an antimalarial drug, specifically if sarcoidosis is affecting your skin.
If your lungs are damaged from sarcoidosis, you may be prescribed oxygen therapy or, in very severe cases, a lung transplant to remove a lung that is no longer functional.
The ultimate goal in treating sarcoidosis is to achieve remission, a state in which symptoms are no longer a problem or negatively affecting a person’s health or well-being. More than half of people with sarcoidosis will experience remission within 3 years of their diagnosis, and two-thirds will go into remission following the 10-year mark.
A diet high in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich foods can be beneficial if you are diagnosed with sarcoidosis. Fruits to incorporate into your diet include avocados, cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries, papaya, kiwi, and grapefruit. Vegetables like broccoli, carrots, chard, cabbage, and kale are excellent for providing essential vitamins. Seafood like salmon, tuna, and herring are high in antioxidants, and spices like turmeric and raw garlic are among the best anti-inflammatory herbs that can provide your body with needed nutrition and support.
Complications of Sarcoidosis
Most people who have sarcoidosis do not experience further complications. However, sarcoidosis can turn into a chronic condition, weakening or damaging your organs and making them more susceptible to infection and other issues.
Potential complications include:
- Heartbeat abnormalities
- Kidney failure
- Facial paralysis
- Lung infections
- Cataracts and glaucoma
If you have been diagnosed with sarcoidosis, it is important that you continue your medicine, follow up with your doctor when directed, make healthy lifestyle changes, and prevent complications. The outlook is generally good for people with sarcoidosis, as you may achieve total, or life-long, remission. Other times, temporary remission is achieved, but the disease returns and causes further complications.