HHT (The Hidden Pathways of a Vein Disorder)

HHT (The Hidden Pathways of a Vein Disorder)

Hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia (HHT), also known as Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome, is a rare genetic disorder that affects blood vessels. It is characterized by abnormal blood vessel formation, leading to the development of fragile, dilated blood vessels known as telangiectasias. These abnormal blood vessels can cause recurrent nosebleeds, skin lesions, and potentially serious complications in various organs. In this article, we will explore the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options for hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia.


HHT Causes and Genetics

The primary cause of HHT is mutations in certain genes that are involved in blood vessel formation and maintenance. The two most implicated genes are Endoglin (ENG) and Activin A receptor type II-like kinase 1 (ACVRL1 or ALK1). Mutations in these genes result in abnormal blood vessel development, leading to the characteristic telangiectasias (small, dilated blood vessels) and arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) seen in HHT. The exact mechanisms by which these gene mutations cause HHT are not fully understood, but it is believed that they disrupt the normal signaling pathways involved in blood vessel development and maintenance. As a result, blood vessels become fragile and prone to bleeding, leading to symptoms such as recurrent nosebleeds, telangiectasias on the skin and mucous membranes, and AVMs in various organs, including the lungs, liver, brain, and gastrointestinal tract. It’s important to note that not all individuals with HHT have the same symptoms or severity of the condition, even within the same family. The expression and severity of HHT can vary widely, even among individuals with the same gene mutation. 


Symptoms and Diagnosis of HHT

  • Symptoms of Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia:

The symptoms of HHT can vary significantly between individuals. Some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Epistaxis (Nosebleeds): Recurrent nosebleeds are often the earliest and most common symptom of HHT. These nosebleeds can range from mild to severe and may require medical intervention to control bleeding.
  • Telangiectasias: These small, dilated blood vessels can appear on the skin, lips, oral cavity, and other mucosal surfaces. They may look like small red or purple spots or appear as spider-like veins.
  • Organ Involvement: HHT can affect various organs, including the lungs, liver, brain, and gastrointestinal tract. Complications may include arteriovenous malformations (AVMs), which are abnormal connections between arteries and veins. AVMs can lead to serious complications such as stroke, brain abscesses, liver enlargement, and gastrointestinal bleeding.


  • Diagnosis of Hereditary Hemorrhagic Telangiectasia:

The diagnosis of HHT involves a combination of clinical evaluation, family history assessment, and imaging studies. A specialist, such as a hematologist or a geneticist, may be involved in the diagnosis process. Key diagnostic criteria for HHT include:

  • Epistaxis: Recurrent nosebleeds that start by the age of 10 or are associated with telangiectasias.
  • Telangiectasias: Multiple telangiectasias in characteristic locations (e.g., lips, oral cavity).
  • Family History: First-degree relatives with a confirmed diagnosis of HHT.
  • Organ Involvement: AVMs in the lungs, liver, brain, or gastrointestinal tract.

If HHT is suspected, additional tests such as genetic testing and imaging studies (e.g., CT scans, MRI, angiography) may be recommended to assess organ involvement and guide treatment decisions.


HHT Risks 

HHT, or hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia, is a genetic disorder that affects blood vessels. It is characterized by the formation of abnormal blood vessels, called telangiectasias, which are prone to bleeding and can lead to various complications. Some of the risks associated with HHT include:

  • Frequent nosebleeds: Nosebleeds are one of the most common symptoms of HHT. They can occur spontaneously and be recurrent and severe, leading to anemia in some cases.
  • Gastrointestinal bleeding: Abnormal blood vessels in the gastrointestinal tract can cause bleeding, which may result in the passage of blood in the stool, leading to anemia and potential complications.
  • Pulmonary arteriovenous malformations (PAVMs): These are abnormal connections between arteries and veins in the lungs. PAVMs can allow blood clots or bacteria to bypass the filtering function of the lungs, potentially leading to strokes, brain abscesses, or other organ complications.
  • AVMs in other organs: Besides the lungs, AVMs (arteriovenous malformations) can occur in other organs like the liver, brain, and spinal cord. These AVMs can cause various problems depending on the affected organ, including bleeding, organ dysfunction, or neurological symptoms.
  • Stroke and brain abscess: If a PAVM allows a blood clot or bacteria to travel to the brain, it can result in a stroke or brain abscess, which can be life-threatening.
  • Iron deficiency anemia: Chronic bleeding from nosebleeds, gastrointestinal bleeding, or other sources can lead to iron deficiency anemia, which can cause fatigue, weakness, and other symptoms.
  • Complications during pregnancy: HHT can increase the risk of complications during pregnancy, including miscarriage, premature birth, and excessive bleeding during childbirth.

It’s important to note that the severity and manifestation of HHT can vary among individuals. Some individuals may experience mild symptoms, while others may have more severe complications. Early diagnosis, appropriate management, and regular monitoring by healthcare professionals familiar with HHT can help mitigate some of the risks and improve the overall prognosis.


HHT Treatment Options

While there is no cure for HHT, several treatment options can help manage the symptoms and prevent complications. Here are some common treatment approaches for hereditary hemorrhagic telangiectasia:

  • Laser therapy: Laser treatment is often used to manage bleeding from telangiectasias. A focused laser beam is used to cauterize the abnormal blood vessels, sealing them off and reducing the risk of bleeding.
  • Embolization: This procedure involves the insertion of a catheter into the affected blood vessel to block or close off the abnormal blood flow. Embolization is commonly used for larger arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) that can cause significant bleeding or other complications.
  • Iron supplementation: Recurrent bleeding in HHT can lead to chronic iron deficiency and anemia. Iron supplementation may be prescribed to manage iron levels and prevent anemia. Regular monitoring of iron levels is essential to ensure appropriate supplementation.
  • Nasal saline irrigation: Frequent nosebleeds are a common symptom of HHT. Nasal saline irrigation, also known as nasal lavage or nasal douching, involves rinsing the nasal passages with a saline solution. This can help keep the nasal passages moist, reduce crusting, and minimize the frequency and severity of nosebleeds.
  • Topical treatments: Some topical treatments, such as ointments or gels containing agents like estrogen, can be applied to telangiectasias to help reduce bleeding and promote healing.
  • Medications: In some cases, medications may be prescribed to manage specific symptoms or complications associated with HHT. For example, estrogen therapy or hormonal contraceptives may be used in women with HHT to help control bleeding. Other medications, such as tranexamic acid, may be prescribed to reduce bleeding episodes.
  • Regular monitoring and screening: People with HHT should undergo regular monitoring and screening for potential complications, such as AVMs in the lungs, liver, or brain. This can help detect and manage any issues early on.

It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional experienced in treating HHT to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for an individual’s specific symptoms and needs.

Dr. Adeeb AlShahrour
Dr. Adeeb AlShahrour

Dr. Alshahrour is a highly skilled obstetrician and gynecologist who provides compassionate care to women of all ages. He has years of experience in the field, and is dedicated to helping his patients achieve the best possible health outcomes.