Normally, the immune system defends the body against foreign or harmful substances, sending special cells to protect organs. 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…but not always.
Consider sarcoidosis, a chronic inflammatory disease that affects about 200,000 in the US–three times as many African-Americans as Caucasians. The condition can affect many organs, but mainly appears in the lungs. Skin changes — including purple lesions — are sometimes associated with the disorder, and the clinical course of the condition can vary depending on organ involvement, ethnicity and incubation period. Complicating things further: Onset can be either rapid or gradual and many individuals appear asymptomatic for years.
The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, though researchers have made associations with irritants like fumes from wood-burning stoves and tree pollen. More recently, exposure to molds, insecticides and even particulates from photocopiers have been linked to the disease as well.
Sarcoidosis is usually temporary, with the body healing itself about half the time. Many people recover from the disease with few or no long-term problems, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. When patients need treatment, it often includes using good health practices like eating a balanced diet, exercising, curbing excessive intake of calcium-rich foods, and avoiding exposure to noxious materials (including cigarettes). For other cases, a physician may prescribe medications that commonly treat gout or rheumatoid arthritis or steroid therapy.
To diagnose sarcoidosis, a physician must first exclude other diseases that may have similar signs and symptoms, such as tuberculosis and some lymphomas. These other diseases need very different treatments than sarcoidosis.
Groups such as the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research, the American Lung Association and the Sarcoid Networking Association are helping, and bring together support, education and resources to improve the lives of sarcoidosis patients and their loved ones.