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Cryoglobulinemia

Definition

Cryoglobulinemia is the presence of abnormal proteins in the blood. These abnormal proteins become thick or gel-like in cold temperatures.

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

Cryoglobulins are antibodies. It is not yet known why they become solid at low temperatures. When they do thicken or become somewhat gel-like, they can block blood vessels throughout the body. This may lead to complications ranging from skin rashes to kidney failure.

Cryoglobulinemia is part of a group of diseases that cause vasculitis -- damage and inflammation of the blood vessels throughout the body. The disorder is grouped into three main types, depending on the type of antibody that is produced:

  • Cryoglobulinemia type I
  • Cryoglobulinemia typeII
  • Cryoglobulinemia type III

Types II and III are also referred to as mixed cryoglobulinemia.

Type I cryoglobulinemia is most often related to cancer of the blood or immune systems.

Types II and III are most often found in people who have a chronic (long-lasting) inflammatory condition, such as an autoimmune disease or hepatitis C. Most patients with mixed cryoglobulinemia have a chronic hepatitis C infection.

Other conditions that may be related to cryoglobulinemia include:

Symptoms

Symptoms vary depending on the type of cryoglobulinemia and the organs that are affected. In general, symptoms may include:

Signs and tests

The doctor will perform a physical exam. There may be signs of liver and spleen swelling.

Tests for cryoglobulinemia include:

Other tests may include:

Treatment

Treatment of mild or moderate cryoglobulinemia depends on the underlying cause. Treating the cause will often treat the cryoglobulinemia.

Mild cases can be treated by avoiding cold temperatures.

Standard hepatitis C treatments usually work for patients who have hepatitis C and mild or moderate cryoglobulinemia. However, the condition can return when treatment stops.

Severe cryoglobulinemia (involves vital organs or large areas of skin) is treated with corticosteroids and other medications that suppress the immune system.

Treatment may also involve plasmapheresis. Plasmapheresis is a procedure in which blood plasma is removed from the circulation and replaced by fluid, protein, or donated plasma.

Expectations (prognosis)

Cryoglobulinemia is not usually deadly. However, if the kidneys are affected, the outlook is poor.

Complications

Complications include:

  • Bleeding in the digestive tract (rare)
  • Heart disease (rare)
  • Infections of ulcers
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Skin death
  • Death

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider if:

  • You develop symptoms of cryoglobulinemia
  • You have hepatitis C and develop symptoms of cryoglobulinemia
  • You have cryoglobulinemia and develop new or worsening symptoms

Prevention

There is no known prevention. Avoiding exposure to cold temperatures may prevent some symptoms.

Because so many cases of mixed cryoglobulinemia are associated with hepatitis C, prevention of hepatitis C infection may reduce your risk of cryoglobulinemia.

References

Goldman L, Ausiello D. Cecil Textbook of Medicine. 22nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2004:1193.

Rakel P, ed. Conn’s Current Therapy 2006. 58th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: WB Saunders; 2006:980, 1164.

Harris ED, Budd RC, Genovese MC, Firestein GS, Sargent JS, Sledge CB. Kelley's Textbook of Rheumatology. 7th ed. St. Louis, Mo: WB Saunders; 2005:1392-1393.


Review Date: 1/12/2009
Reviewed By: Todd Gersten, M.D., Hematology/Oncology, Palm Beach Cancer Institute, West Palm Beach, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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