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What Is Sarcoidosis?

Sarcoidosis (sar-koy-DO-sis) is a disease of unknown cause that leads to inflammation. This disease affects your body’s organs.

Normally, your immune system defends your body against foreign or harmful substances. For example, it sends special cells to protect organs that are in danger.

These cells release chemicals that recruit other cells to isolate and destroy the harmful substance. Inflammation occurs during this process. Once the harmful substance is gone, the cells and the inflammation go away.

In people who have sarcoidosis, the inflammation doesn't go away. Instead, some of the immune system cells cluster to form lumps called granulomas (gran-yu-LO-mas) in various organs in your body.

Overview

Sarcoidosis can affect any organ in your body. However, it's more likely to affect some organs than others. The disease usually starts in the lungs, skin, and/or lymph nodes (especially the lymph nodes in your chest).

Also, the disease often affects the eyes and liver. Although less common, sarcoidosis can affect the heart and brain, leading to serious complications.

If many granulomas form in an organ, they can affect how the organ works. This can cause signs and symptoms. Signs and symptoms vary depending on which organs are affected. Many people who have sarcoidosis have no signs or symptoms or mild ones.

Lofgren's syndrome is a classic set of signs and symptoms that is typical in some people who have sarcoidosis. Lofgren's syndrome may cause fever, enlarged lymph nodes, arthritis (usually in the ankles), and/or erythema nodosum (er-ih-THE-ma no-DO-sum).

Erythema nodosum is a rash of red or reddish-purple bumps on your ankles and shins. The rash may be warm and tender to the touch.

Treatment for sarcoidosis varies depending on which organs are affected. Your doctor may prescribe topical treatments and/or medicines to treat the disease. Not everyone who has sarcoidosis needs treatment.

Outlook

The outlook for sarcoidosis varies. Many people recover from the disease with few or no long-term problems.

More than half of the people who have sarcoidosis have remission within 3 years of diagnosis. “Remission” means the disease isn't active, but it can return.

Two-thirds of people who have the disease have remission within 10 years of diagnosis. People who have Lofgren's syndrome usually have remission. Relapse (return of the disease) 1 or more years after remission occurs in less than 5 percent of patients.

Sarcoidosis leads to organ damage in about one-third of the people diagnosed with the disease. Damage may occur over many years and involve more than one organ. Rarely, sarcoidosis can be fatal. Death usually is the result of problems with the lungs, heart, or brain.

Poor outcomes are more likely in people who have advanced disease and show little improvement from treatment.

Certain people are at higher risk for poor outcomes from chronic (long-term) sarcoidosis. This includes people who have lung scarring, heart or brain complications, or lupus pernio (LU-pus PUR-ne-o). Lupus pernio is a serious skin condition that sarcoidosis may cause.

Research is ongoing for new and better treatments for sarcoidosis.




What Causes Sarcoidosis?

The cause of sarcoidosis isn't known. More than one factor may play a role in causing the disease.

Some researchers think that sarcoidosis develops if your immune system responds to a trigger, such as bacteria, viruses, dust, or chemicals.

Normally, your immune system defends your body against foreign or harmful substances. For example, it sends special cells to protect organs that are in danger.

These cells release chemicals that recruit other cells to isolate and destroy the harmful substance. Inflammation occurs during this process. Once the harmful substance is gone, the cells and the inflammation go away.

In people who have sarcoidosis, the inflammation doesn't go away. Instead, some of the immune system cells cluster to form lumps called granulomas in various organs in your body.

Genetics also may play a role in sarcoidosis. Researchers believe that sarcoidosis occurs if:

  • You have a certain gene or genes that raise your risk for the disease

—And—

  • You're exposed to something that triggers your immune system

Triggers may vary depending on your genetic makeup. Certain genes may influence which organs are affected and the severity of your symptoms.

Researchers continue to try to pinpoint the genes that are linked to sarcoidosis.




Who Is at Risk for Sarcoidosis?

Sarcoidosis affects people of all ages and races. However, it's more common among African Americans and Northern Europeans. In the United States, the disease affects African Americans somewhat more often and more severely than Whites.

Studies have shown that sarcoidosis tends to vary amongst ethnic groups. For example, eye problems related to the disease are more common in Japanese people.

Lofgren's syndrome, a type of sarcoidosis, is more common in people of European descent. Lofgren's syndrome may involve fever, enlarged lymph nodes, arthritis (usually in the ankles), and/or erythema nodosum. Erythema nodosum is a rash of red or reddish-purple bumps on your ankles and shins. The rash may be warm and tender to the touch.

Sarcoidosis is somewhat more common in women than in men. The disease usually develops between the ages of 20 and 50. People who have a family history of sarcoidosis also are at higher risk for the disease.

Researchers have looked for a link between sarcoidosis and exposure to workplace and environmental factors. However, no clear link has been found.




What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Sarcoidosis?

Many people who have sarcoidosis have no signs or symptoms or mild ones. Often, the disease is found when a chest x ray is done for another reason (for example, to diagnose pneumonia).

The signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis vary depending on which organs are affected. Signs and symptoms also may vary depending on your gender, age, and ethnic background. (For more information, go to "Who Is at Risk for Sarcoidosis?")

Common Signs and Symptoms

In both adults and children, sarcoidosis most often affects the lungs. If granulomas (inflamed lumps) form in your lungs, you may wheeze, cough, feel short of breath, or have chest pain. Or, you may have no symptoms at all.

Some people who have sarcoidosis feel very tired, uneasy, or depressed. Night sweats and weight loss are common symptoms of the disease.

Common signs and symptoms in children are fatigue (tiredness), loss of appetite, weight loss, bone and joint pain, and anemia.

Children who are younger than 4 years old may have a distinct form of sarcoidosis. It may cause enlarged lymph nodes in the chest (which can be seen on chest x-ray pictures), skin lesions, and eye swelling or redness.

Other Signs and Symptoms

Sarcoidosis may affect your lymph nodes. The disease can cause enlarged lymph nodes that feel tender. Sarcoidosis usually affects the lymph nodes in your neck and chest. However, the disease also may affect the lymph nodes under your chin, in your armpits, or in your groin.

Sarcoidosis can cause lumps, ulcers (sores), or areas of discolored skin. These areas may itch, but they don't hurt. These signs tend to appear on your back, arms, legs, and scalp. Sometimes they appear near your nose or eyes. These signs usually last a long time.

Sarcoidosis may cause a more serious skin condition called lupus pernio. Disfiguring skin sores may affect your nose, nasal passages, cheeks, ears, eyelids, and fingers. These sores tend to be ongoing. They can return after treatment is over.

Sarcoidosis also can cause eye problems. If you have sarcoidosis, having an annual eye exam is important. If you have changes in your vision and can't see as clearly or can't see color, call 9–1–1 or have someone drive you to the emergency room.

You should call your doctor if you have any new eye symptoms, such as burning, itching, tearing, pain, or sensitivity to light.

Signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis also may include an enlarged liver, spleen, or salivary glands.

Although less common, sarcoidosis can affect the heart and brain. This can cause many symptoms, such as abnormal heartbeats, shortness of breath, headaches, and vision problems. If sarcoidosis affects the heart or brain, serious complications can occur.

Lofgren's Syndrome

Lofgren's syndrome is a classic set of signs and symptoms that occur in some people when they first have sarcoidosis. Signs and symptoms may include:

  • Fever. This symptom only occurs in some people.
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (which can be seen on a chest x ray).
  • Arthritis, usually in the ankles. This symptom is more common in men than women.
  • Erythema nodosum. This is a rash of red or reddish-purple bumps on your ankles and shins. The rash may be warm and tender to the touch. This symptom is more common in women than men.

Sarcoidosis Signs and Symptoms

The illustration shows the major signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis (as described in this section) and the organs involved.

The illustration shows the major signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis and the organs involved.




How Is Sarcoidosis Diagnosed?

Your doctor will diagnose sarcoidosis based on your medical history, a physical exam, and test results. He or she will look for granulomas (inflamed lumps) in your organs. Your doctor also will try to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms.

Medical History

Your doctor may ask you detailed questions about your medical history. For example, he or she may ask whether you:

  • Have a family history of sarcoidosis.
  • Have had any jobs that may have raised your risk for the disease.
  • Have ever been exposed to inhaled beryllium metal. (This type of metal is used to make aircrafts and weapons.)
  • Have had contact with organic dust from birds or hay.

Exposure to beryllium metal and organic dust can cause inflamed lumps in your lungs that look like the granulomas from sarcoidosis. However, these lumps are signs of other conditions.

Physical Exam

Your doctor will check you for signs and symptoms of sarcoidosis. Signs and symptoms may include red bumps on your skin; swollen lymph nodes; an enlarged liver, spleen, or salivary glands; or redness in your eyes. Your doctor also will check for other causes of your symptoms.

Your doctor may listen to your lungs and heart. Abnormal breathing or heartbeat sounds could be a sign that sarcoidosis is affecting your lungs or heart.

Diagnostic Tests

You may have tests to confirm a diagnosis and to find out how sarcoidosis is affecting you. Tests include a chest x ray, lung function tests, biopsy, and other tests to assess organ damage.

Chest X Ray

A chest x ray is a painless test that creates pictures of the structures inside your chest, such as your heart and lungs. The test may show granulomas or enlarged lymph nodes in your chest. About 95 percent of people who have sarcoidosis have abnormal chest x rays.

Lung Function Tests

Lung function tests measure how much air you can breathe in and out, how fast you can breathe air out, and how well your lungs deliver oxygen to your blood. These tests can show whether sarcoidosis is affecting your lungs.

Biopsy

Your doctor may do a biopsy to confirm a diagnosis or rule out other causes of your symptoms. A biopsy involves taking a small sample of tissue from one of your affected organs.

Usually, doctors try to biopsy the organs that are easiest to access. Examples include the skin, tear glands, or the lymph nodes that are just under the skin.

If this isn't possible, your doctor may use a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to pinpoint areas for biopsy. For this test, a small amount of radioactive substance is injected into a vein, usually in your arm.

The substance, which releases energy, travels through the blood and collects in organs or tissues. Special cameras detect the energy and convert it into three-dimensional (3D) pictures.

If lung function tests or a chest x ray shows signs of sarcoidosis in your lungs, your doctor may do a bronchoscopy (bron-KOS-ko-pee) to get a small sample of lung tissue.

During this procedure, a thin, flexible tube is passed through your nose (or sometimes your mouth), down your throat, and into the airways to reach your lung tissue. (For more information, go to the Health Topics Bronchoscopy article.)

Other Tests To Assess Organ Damage

You also may have other tests to assess organ damage and find out whether you need treatment. For example, your doctor may recommend blood tests and/or an EKG (electrocardiogram).

If you’re diagnosed with sarcoidosis, you should see an ophthalmologist (eye specialist), even if you don’t have eye symptoms. In sarcoidosis, eye damage can occur without symptoms.




How Is Sarcoidosis Treated?

Not everyone who has sarcoidosis needs treatment. Sometimes the disease goes away on its own. Whether you need treatment and what type of treatment you need depend on your signs and symptoms, which organs are affected, and whether those organs are working well.

If the disease affects certain organs—such as your eyes, heart, or brain—you'll need treatment even if you don't have any symptoms.

In either case, whether you have symptoms or not, you should see your doctor for ongoing care. He or she will want to check to make sure that the disease isn't damaging your organs. For example, you may need routine lung function tests to make sure that your lungs are working well.

If the disease isn't worsening, your doctor may watch you closely to see whether the disease goes away on its own. If the disease does start to get worse, your doctor can prescribe treatment.

The goals of treatment include:

  • Relieving symptoms
  • Improving organ function
  • Controlling inflammation and reducing the size of granulomas (inflamed lumps)
  • Preventing pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring) if your lungs are affected

Your doctor may prescribe topical treatments and/or medicines to treat the disease.

Medicines

Prednisone

Prednisone, a type of steroid, is the main treatment for sarcoidosis. This medicine reduces inflammation. In most people, prednisone relieves symptoms within a couple of months.

Although most people need to take prednisone for 12 months or longer, your doctor may lower the dose within a few months after you start the medicine.

Long-term use of prednisone, especially at high doses, can cause serious side effects. Work with your doctor to decide whether the benefits of this medicine outweigh the risks. If your doctor prescribes this treatment, he or she will find the lowest dose that controls your disease.

When you stop taking prednisone, you should cut back slowly (as your doctor advises). This will help prevent flareups of sarcoidosis. Cutting back slowly also allows your body to adjust to not having the medicine.

If a relapse or flareup occurs after you stop taking prednisone, you may need a second round of treatment. If you remain stable for more than 1 year after stopping this treatment, the risk of relapse is low.

Other Medicines

Other medicines, besides prednisone, also are used to treat sarcoidosis. Examples include:

  • Hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine (known as antimalarial medicines). These medicines work best for treating sarcoidosis that affects the skin or brain. Your doctor also may prescribe an antimalarial if you have a high level of calcium in your blood due to sarcoidosis.
  • Medicines that suppress the immune system, such as methotrexate, azathioprine, or leflunomide. These medicines work best for treating sarcoidosis that affects your lungs, eyes, skin, or joints.

Your doctor may prescribe these medicines if your sarcoidosis worsens while you're taking prednisone or if you can't handle prednisone's side effects.

If you have Lofgren's syndrome with pain or fever, your doctor may prescribe nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.

If you're wheezing and coughing, you may need inhaled medicine to help open your airways. You take inhaled medicine using an inhaler. This device allows the medicine to go straight to your lungs.

Anti-tumor necrosis factor drugs, originally developed to treat arthritis, are being studied to treat sarcoidosis.

Ongoing Research

Researchers continue to look for new and better treatments for sarcoidosis. They're currently studying treatments aimed at the immune system. Researchers also are studying antibiotics as a possible treatment for sarcoidosis that affects the skin.

For more information about ongoing research, go to the “Clinical Trials” section of this article.




Living With Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis has no cure, but you can take steps to manage the disease. Get ongoing care and follow a healthy lifestyle. Talk with your doctor if you’re pregnant or planning a pregnancy.

Ongoing Care

Ongoing care is important, even if you don't take medicine for your sarcoidosis. New symptoms can occur at any time. Also, the disease can slowly worsen without your noticing.

How often you need to see your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms, which organs are affected, which treatments you're using, and whether you have any side effects from treatment. Even if you don’t have symptoms, you should see your doctor for ongoing care.

Your doctor may recommend routine tests, such as lung function tests and eye exams. He or she will want to check to make sure that the disease isn’t damaging your organs.

Discuss with your doctor how often you need to have followup visits. You may have some followup visits with your primary care doctor and others with one or more specialists.

Make sure to take all of your medicines as your doctor prescribes.

Lifestyle Changes

Making lifestyle changes can help you manage your health. For example, follow a healthy diet and be as physically active as you can. A healthy diet includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

It also includes lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, and fat-free or low-fat milk or milk products. A healthy diet is low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugar.

For more information about following a healthy diet, go to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's (NHLBI’s) Aim for a Healthy Weight Web site, "Your Guide to a Healthy Heart," and "Your Guide to Lowering Your Blood Pressure With DASH." All of these resources include general information about healthy eating.

If you smoke, quit. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit. Also, try to avoid other lung irritants, such as dust, chemicals, and secondhand smoke.

If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.

For more information about how to quit smoking, go to the Health Topics Smoking and Your Heart article and the NHLBI’s “Your Guide to a Healthy Heart” booklet. Although these resources focus on heart health, both include general information about how to quit smoking.

Emotional Issues

Living with sarcoidosis may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. Talk about how you feel with your health care team. Talking to a professional counselor also can help. If you’re very depressed, your doctor may recommend medicines or other treatments that can improve your quality of life.

Joining a patient support group may help you adjust to living with sarcoidosis. You can see how other people who have the same symptoms have coped with them. Talk with your doctor about local support groups or check with an area medical center.

Support from family and friends also can help relieve stress and anxiety. Let your loved ones know how you feel and what they can do to help you.

Pregnancy

Many women who have sarcoidosis give birth to healthy babies. Women who have severe sarcoidosis, especially if they’re older, may have trouble becoming pregnant. Sometimes sarcoidosis may get worse after the baby is delivered.

If you have sarcoidosis and are pregnant or planning a pregnancy, talk with your doctor about the risks involved. Also, if you become pregnant, it’s important to get good prenatal care and regular sarcoidosis checkups during and after pregnancy.

Some sarcoidosis medicines are considered safe to use during pregnancy; others are not recommended.




Clinical Trials

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) is strongly committed to supporting research aimed at preventing and treating heart, lung, and blood diseases and conditions and sleep disorders.

NHLBI-supported research has led to many advances in medical knowledge and care. For example, this research has uncovered some of the causes of chronic lung diseases, as well as ways to prevent or treat these diseases.

The NHLBI continues to support research aimed at learning more about chronic lung diseases, including sarcoidosis. For example, NHLBI-supported research on sarcoidosis includes studies that explore:

  • Whether a popular cholesterol-lowering medicine can help treat sarcoidosis that affects the lungs
  • How certain bacteria and toxins in the mouth, lungs, and digestive system may affect sarcoidosis and other diseases
  • How genes play a role in the development of sarcoidosis and other lung diseases

Much of this research depends on the willingness of volunteers to take part in clinical trials. Clinical trials test new ways to prevent, diagnose, or treat various diseases and conditions.

For example, new treatments for a disease or condition (such as medicines, medical devices, surgeries, or procedures) are tested in volunteers who have the illness. Testing shows whether a treatment is safe and effective in humans before it is made available for widespread use.

By taking part in a clinical trial, you can gain access to new treatments before they’re widely available. You also will have the support of a team of health care providers, who will likely monitor your health closely. Even if you don’t directly benefit from the results of a clinical trial, the information gathered can help others and add to scientific knowledge.

If you volunteer for a clinical trial, the research will be explained to you in detail. You’ll learn about treatments and tests you may receive, and the benefits and risks they may pose. You’ll also be given a chance to ask questions about the research. This process is called informed consent.

If you agree to take part in the trial, you’ll be asked to sign an informed consent form. This form is not a contract. You have the right to withdraw from a study at any time, for any reason. Also, you have the right to learn about new risks or findings that emerge during the trial.

For more information about clinical trials related to sarcoidosis, talk with your doctor. You also can visit the following Web sites to learn more about clinical research and to search for clinical trials:

For more information about clinical trials for children, visit the NHLBI’s Children and Clinical Studies Web page.




Links to Other Information About Sarcoidosis

Non-NHLBI Resources

Clinical Trials

 
June 14, 2013 Last Updated Icon

The NHLBI updates Health Topics articles on a biennial cycle based on a thorough review of research findings and new literature. The articles also are updated as needed if important new research is published. The date on each Health Topics article reflects when the content was originally posted or last revised.

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