African-American women face a higher risk than any other ethnic group of developing sarcoidosis, says the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), noting in a new report that the once-rare fibrotic disease now affects an estimated 200,000 Americans.
Sarcoidosis, which can be difficult to diagnose because of its varied symptoms, affects one or more organs at a time, most commonly the lungs and lymph nodes.
“About 90 percent of patients have it in the lungs,” Daniel Culver, director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sarcoidosis and Interstitial Lung Disease Program, said in a press release. “The lung symptoms, which can include coughing, wheezing and chest discomfort, are often misdiagnosed as asthma.”
Women are at a higher risk than men for sarcoidosis and tend to get it later in life than men. In addition, blacks are 2.5 times more likely than whites to develop sarcoidosis than whites and have a 3 percent lifetime risk of getting the inflammatory disease, which often remains untreated.
Doctors diagnosed Jacqueline Stewart with sarcoidosis after a severe case of pneumonia, which led to X-rays revealing granulomas in her lungs. Sarcoidosis may cause anomalous nodules to form in the affected organs. An X-ray or biopsy will reveal the disease and where it is located, yet no specific test battery exists to diagnose the condition.
With granulomas in her lungs, Stewart could no longer climb stairs or walk distances. Her flare-ups, if not immediately treated with steroids, frequently required hospitalization. Stewart now relies on an inhaler to manage her asthma-like symptoms, and still has regular flare-ups that can immobilize her for up to two weeks at a time.
“I experienced periodic chest pain and flu-like symptoms but I thought it would pass,” Stewart said. “I was taught to be tough. I wish I’d gone to the doctor sooner.”
The AOA suggests that the rising incidence of sarcoidosis among blacks might be because African-Americans tend to have more granulomas, potentially causing their disease to be more severe. In addition, sarcoidosis symptoms like fever, pain, fatigue, rash, vision problems, headaches and abnormal heartbeat often overlap with other conditions, making the diagnosis even more difficult. Many people have very few or no symptoms of sarcoidosis.
Despite the increased prevalence in black women, sarcoidosis can affect all ethnicities and genders.
“Awareness is essential, especially among the African-American community,” said Jen Caudle, an osteopathic physician and assistant professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Stratford, New Jersey. “While a lingering cough or flu-like symptoms may not seem threatening, these symptoms may be a sign of sarcoidosis. It’s a serious but treatable chronic disease.”