Public Release: 

'Mystery Disease' Sarcoidosis Receives Attention From New England Journal Of Medicine

National Jewish Health

DENVER-"Sarcoidosis is a result of an unknown environmental agent," says Lee Newman, M.D., a National Jewish Medical and Research Center physician. "Sarcoidosis is a mystery disease. There's probably more than one cause." Dr. Newman's "Medical Progress" report in the April 24 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine outlines what the medical community has learned about the disease during the past 10 years and the best ways to treat it. Sarcoidosis--the most common type of interstitial lung disease--attacks the entire body, focusing on the lungs, eyes, skin and organs. It is characterized by inflamed, microscopic growths called granulomas, most often found in the lungs. Sarcoidosis can cause redness in the eyes, shortness of breath, bumps on the skin, fatigue, fever and general pain caused by exposure to light. Oral corticosteroids are used to treat sarcoidosis.

About 3 percent of African-American women risk getting the disease sometime during their adult lives. It typically affects people between the ages of 20-40. The disease is slightly less common in African-American men, and Caucasian women and men. In the United States, 30 people in every 100,000, in all ethnic groups, have sarcoidosis. "Sarcoidosis shows up in every medical practice in the country," says Dr. Newman, director of the National Jewish Division of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

Sarcoidosis apparently isn't contagious, but researchers believe shared environmental exposure, such as living in the same house or town, or working in the same building, may lead to the disease. For example, sarcoidosis is more common in health care workers, especially nurses, and in rural areas. "It tends to run in families," says Dr. Newman, who has treated people with sarcoidosis for more than 15 years. "If there's one person in a family with sarcoidosis, then there is as much as a 16 percent chance another family member will contract the disease."

Health care providers have learned:

  • About 50 percent of people need little or no treatment because sarcoidosis eventually passes on its own
  • Less than 5 percent of people with sarcoidosis die
  • Sarcoidosis occurs when the body's immune system overreacts to an unknown agent
  • Sarcoidosis "masquerades" as other diseases, such as hepatitis, dermatitis, arthritis, tuberculosis and asthma
  • About 50 percent of patients have at least some permanent organ damage
  • New ways of treating the disease are being developed that focus on controlling the immune system's over-reaction
  • National Jewish is one of ten medical centers funded by the National Institutes of Health to conduct a study examining the causes of this mystery disease
  • For more information about sarcoidosis, call LUNG LINE, (800) 222-LUNG

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