Typical symptoms include palpable purpura (small hemorrhages in the skin), joint pains and abdominal pain. Most cases are self-limiting and require no treatment apart from symptom control, but the disease may relapse in a third of the cases and cause irreversible kidney damage in about one in a hundred cases. The exact cause of Henoch-Schönlein purpura is unknown, although it may occur after certain viral and bacterial infections, as well as an adverse drug reaction to some medications.
Purpura, arthritis and abdominal pain are known as the classic triad of Henoch-Schönlein purpura. Purpura occur in all cases, joint pains and arthritis in 80%, and abdominal pain in 62%. Some include gastrointestinal hemorrhage as a fourth criterion; this occurs in 33% of cases, sometimes but not necessarily due to intussusception). The purpura typically appear on the legs and buttocks, but may also be seen on the arms, face and trunk. The abdominal pain is colicky in character, and may be accompanied by nausea, vomiting, constipation or diarrhea. There may be blood or mucus in the stools. The joints involved tend to be the ankles, knees, and elbows but arthritis in the hands and feet is possible; the arthritis is non-erosive and hence causes no permanent deformity. Forty percent have evidence of kidney involvement, mainly in the form of hematuria (blood in the urine), but only a quarter will have this in sufficient quantities to be noticeable without laboratory tests. Problems in other organs, such as the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and lungs may occur, but much less commonly than the skin, bowel and kidneys.
The disease tends to last about 4 weeks, and then resolves spontaneously.
The diagnosis is based on the combination of the symptoms, as very few other diseases cause the same symptoms together. Blood tests may show elevated creatinine and urea levels (in kidney involvement), raised IgA levels (in about 50%), and raised C-reactive protein (CRP) or erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) results; none are specific for Henoch-Schönlein purpura. The platelet count may be raised, and distinguishes it from diseases where low platelets are the cause of the purpura, such as idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura.
If there is doubt about the cause of the skin lesions, a biopsy of the skin may be performed to distinguish the purpura from other diseases that cause purpura, such as vasculitis due to cryoglobulinemia; on microscopy the appearances are of a hypersensitivity vasculitis and immunofluorescence demonstrates IgA and C3 (a protein of the complement system) in the blood vessel wall.
On the basis of symptoms, it is possible to distinguish HSP from hypersensitivity vasculitis (HV). In a series comparing 85 HSP patients with 93 HV patients, five symptoms were found to be indicative of HSP: palpable purpura, abdominal angina, digestive tract hemorrhage (not due to intussussception), hematuria and age less than 20. The presence of three or more of these indicators has an 87% sensitivity for predicting HSP.
Biopsy of the kidney may be performed both to establish the diagnosis or to assess the severity of already suspected kidney disease. The main findings on kidney biopsy are increased cells in the mesangium (part of the glomerulus, where blood is filtered), white blood cells, and the development of crescents. The changes are indistinguishable from those observed IgA nephropathy.
HSP can develop after infections with streptococci (β-haemolytic, Lancefield group A), hepatitis B, herpes simplex virus, parvovirus B19, Coxsackievirus, adenovirus, Helicobacter pylori, measles, mumps, rubella, mycoplasma and numerous others. Drugs linked to HSP, usually as an idiosyncratic reaction, include the antibiotics vancomycin and cefuroxime, ACE inhibitors enalapril and captopril, anti-inflammatory agent diclofenac, as well as ranitidine and streptokinase.Several diseases have been reported to be associated with HSP, often without a causative link. Only in about 35% of cases can HSP be traced to any of these causes.
The exact cause of HSP is unknown, but most of its features are due to the deposition of abnormal antibodies in the wall of blood vessels, leading to vasculitis. These antibodies are of the subclass IgA1 in polymers; it is uncertain whether the main cause is overproduction (in the digestive tract or the bone marrow) or decreased removal of abnormal IgA from the circulation. It is suspected that abnormalities in the IgA1 molecule may provide an explanation for its abnormal behaviour in both HSP and the related condition IgA nephropathy. One of the characteristics of IgA1 (and IgD) is the presence of an 18 amino acid-long hinge region between complement-fixating region 1 and 2. Of the amino acids, half is proline, while the other ones are mainly serine and threonine. The majority of the serines and the threonines have elaborate sugar chains, connected through oxygen atoms (O-glycosylation). This process is thought to stabilise the IgA molecule and make it less prone to proteolysis. The first sugar is always N-acetyl-galactosamine (GalNAc), followed by other galactoses and sialic acid. In HSP and IgAN, it appears that these sugar chains are deficient. The exact reason for these abnormalities are not known.
Evidence of worsening kidney damage would normally prompt a kidney biopsy. Treatment may be indicated on the basis of the appearance of the biopsy sample; various treatments may be used, ranging from oral steroids to a combination of intravenous methylprednisolone (a potent steroid), cyclophosphamide and dipyridamole followed by prednisone. Other regimens include steroids/azathioprine, and steroids/cyclophosphamide (with or without heparin and warfarin). Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) is occasionally used.
In children under ten, the condition recurs in about a third of all cases and usually within the first four months after the initial attack. Recurrence is more common in older children and adults.
The findings on renal biopsy correlate with the severity of symptoms: those with asymptomatic hematuria may only have focal mesangial proliferation while those with proteinuria may have marked cellular proliferation or even crescent formation. The number of crescentic glomeruli is an important prognostic factor in determining whether the patient will develop chronic renal disease.
In end-stage renal disease, some eventually need hemodialysis or equivalent renal replacement therapy (RRT). If a kidney transplant is found for a patient on RRT, there is a risk of about 35% over 5 years that the disease will recur in the graft (transplanted kidney), and 11% that the graft will fail completely (requiring resumption of the RRT and a further transplant).
The incidence of HSP in children is about 20 per 100,000 children per year; this makes it the most common vasculitis in childhood.