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Vascular disease

Overview of vascular disease

Your network of blood vessels is called the vascular system. Vascular disease can affect any blood vessel in your body. Some types of vascular disease are primarily cosmetic, like spider and varicose veins. In contrast, others, such as abdominal aortic aneurysm and heart problems, can cause life-threatening complications.

Some people are at higher risk for vascular disease based on their background or lifestyle. If you believe you are at risk, a Dignity Health doctor can help. Find a Doctor to receive vascular care with humankindness. 


The signs and symptoms of vascular disease depend on the type and location of the affected blood vessels. In some cases, there may be no symptoms until a sudden, life-threatening event like a stroke occurs. For instance, if the carotid arteries (in the neck) supplying blood to the brain develop vascular disease, you might get a severe, unexplained headache or signs of a stroke. If you have varicose veins in the legs, you may have pain after exercising.

Vascular disease can also be systemic, meaning it occurs throughout the body. This type of vascular disease can be challenging to diagnose since symptoms like general fatigue resemble the symptoms of many other conditions. Lab tests can help your Dignity Health doctor sort through the possibilities and more accurately diagnose the cause of your symptoms.


A variety of medical conditions can affect the blood vessels and lead to vascular disease. These conditions may include:

  • Inflammation
  • Infection
  • Heart disease
  • Autoimmune disorders
  • Poorly controlled diabetes
  • Structural problems within the walls of arteries and veins
  • Genetics

Environmental and lifestyle factors like smoking, inactivity, and an unhealthy diet can also contribute to vascular disease. In some cases, such as with Raynaud’s syndrome, living in a colder climate can contribute to vascular disease.


Because vascular disease can affect your body’s entire network of blood vessels, there are many different types. Many are quite common, and some are serious. The most common types of vascular disease include: 

  • Atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in your arteries
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Deep vein thrombosis
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Coronary and carotid artery disease, the accumulation of plaque in these specific arteries
  • Stroke
  • Peripheral artery disease, in which your extremities, often your legs, don’t receive enough blood flow
  • Vasculitis, the inflammation of blood vessels
  • Raynaud’s disease, a condition where the blood vessels narrow when you are cold or stressed

Risk factors

As there are many different vascular diseases, risk factors vary. Unfortunately, you may not have control over many of these factors, such as age or family history, but knowing these factors can help you make more informed decisions about your care. Some of the more common risk factors to be aware of include:

  • Age
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Family history of vascular disease
  • Infection or injury to your veins
  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Sitting or standing for long periods of time


Prevention strategies can minimize your risk of developing some vascular conditions. The goal of preventive medicine is to keep your entire vascular system healthy by controlling known risk factors. For example, you can minimize your risk of vascular disease by making lifestyle choices that promote healthy blood vessels, including: 

  • Not smoking
  • Exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding sitting or standing for long periods of time

While you can’t prevent aging or family history that may predispose you to vascular disease, focusing on living a healthy and active lifestyle will help keep your whole vascular system healthy.

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.