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Kaposi sarcoma

4-minute read

Kaposi sarcoma (KS) is a type of cancer that causes blue/red patches on the skin. It is most often found in people who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS.

Types of Kaposi sarcoma

Kaposi sarcoma causes abnormal growths in the skin, the membranes that produce mucous, in the glands or in other organs. Most cancers start in one place then spread to other parts of the body. But Kaposi sarcoma can start in more than one place at the same time.

It is caused by the human herpes virus-8 (HHV-8), though not all people with HHV-8 will develop Kaposi sarcoma. It is more likely to develop in people who have HHV-8 and whose immune systems are also weakened by HIV/AIDS, or because they have had an organ transplant.

Other types of Kaposi sarcoma are a rare, slow growing form found only in the skin (called Classic Kaposi sarcoma), and a type found in certain parts of Africa (called Endemic or African Kaposi sarcoma). 

Kaposi sarcoma symptoms

The main sign of Kaposi sarcoma is reddish-purple, reddish-brown or pink spots (lesions) on the skin. They are usually on the legs or face, but can grow inside the body as well. There may be just one or several in different places of the body. Sometimes they are slightly raised but they may be flat. They can sometimes bleed. 

The lesions can cause other symptoms, depending where they are in the body. Symptoms can include:

  • nausea or diarrhoea (if there are lesions in the digestive tract)
  • breathlessness and a cough (if there are lesions in the lungs)
  • swollen glands or swollen arms and legs (if there are lesions in the lymph nodes)
  • feeling very tired

All of these symptoms can be explained by something else. But if you are worried, tell your doctor.

Kaposi sarcoma diagnosis

If your doctor thinks you may have Kaposi sarcoma, they will examine you and check your skin and lymph nodes.

The only way to confirm Kaposi sarcoma is with a biopsy, when a small sample of tissue is removed from a lesion to examine in the laboratory.

Other tests may include an HIV test (if your HIV status is unknown), a chest x-ray, an endoscopy (where a flexible tube is used to look down the throat and into the stomach), or a bronchoscopy (where a flexible tube is used to look inside the lungs), or a CT scan to see if the cancer has spread anywhere else in the body. 

Kaposi sarcoma treatment

Treatment will depend on the type of Kaposi sarcoma, how many lesions there are, where they are, general health, and how well the immune system is working.

Treatment may include chemotherapy, treatment with the medicine interferon, medicines to fight the virus (called antiviral drugs), or radiotherapy.

If you have AIDS, you will have antiretroviral therapy which gets rid of the lesions by gradually lowering the amount of HIV in your body.

Kaposi sarcoma prevention

There is no way of preventing the virus (HHV-8) that causes Kaposi sarcoma, but you can prevent yourself from getting the HIV virus. That means always practising safe sex and not sharing needles to inject drugs.

If you already have the HIV virus, you can take antiretroviral medicines to lower the amount of HIV in your body and prevent yourself from developing Kaposi sarcoma.

When to seek help

If you have been diagnosed with HIV, see your doctor straightaway if you develop a lesion on your skin, even if it's small. You should always follow your doctor’s advice and have regular check-ups if you have HIV.

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Last reviewed: May 2020

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