- Kaposi sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the lining of your blood and lymphatic vessels. It can cause reddish patches that may be visible on the skin.
- It is caused by the human herpes virus-8 (HHV-8), though not all people with HHV-8 will develop Kaposi sarcoma.
- People who have HHV-8 and a weakened immune system are more likely to develop Kaposi sarcoma.
- Kaposi sarcoma is diagnosed with a biopsy (a sample of tissue that is removed and checked for cancer cells).
- Treatment will depend on your general health, the health of your immune system, and where the lesions are on your body.
What is a Kaposi sarcoma?
Kaposi sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the lining of your blood and lymphatic vessels. It can cause reddish patches that may be visible on the skin.
What are the types of Kaposi sarcoma?
Kaposi sarcoma is a type of cancer that affects the cells that line the blood and lymph vessels. In some cases, cancers start in one place, then spread to other parts of the body. However, Kaposi sarcoma can also 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. Kaposi sarcoma is more likely to develop in people who have HHV-8 and whose immune systems are weakened.
There are 4 different types of Kaposi sarcoma:
- Classic (Mediterranean) Kaposi sarcoma usually affects older males of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern descent. It is often slow-growing and commonly affects the legs, ankles and feet.
- AIDS-related Kaposi sarcoma affects people living with HIV/AIDS.
- Latrogenic Kaposi sarcoma affects people who take medicines that weaken their immune system, for example, because they have had an organ transplant.
- Endemic (African) Kaposi sarcoma generally affects people who live in countries along the equator in Africa, especially children and young people.
What are the symptoms of Kaposi sarcoma?
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 on where they are in the body.
Symptoms can include:
- nausea, abdominal pain 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 are common in other conditions as well, so if you are worried, ask your doctor.
CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Rashes and skin problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.
How will I be diagnosed with Kaposi sarcoma?
If your doctor thinks you may have Kaposi sarcoma, they will examine you and check your skin and lymph nodes. They may also refer you for an HIV test (if your HIV status is unknown).
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.
Tests to look for and biopsy possible lesions may include:
- imaging scans such as x-ray, CT or MRI scans to see if the cancer has spread anywhere else in the body
- procedures such as 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)
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How will I be treated for Kaposi sarcoma?
Your treatment will depend on:
- the type of Kaposi sarcoma you have
- how many lesions you have and where they are
- your general health
- how well your immune system is working
Treatment may include a combination of:
- cryotherapy (freezing lesions off with extreme cold)
- laser therapy
If you have AIDS, antiretroviral therapy can help get rid of the lesions by gradually lowering the amount of HIV in your body, which will help your immune system function better.
How can I prevent Kaposi sarcoma?
There is no way of preventing the virus (HHV-8) that causes Kaposi sarcoma, but you can prevent yourself from getting HIV. 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 reduce your chance of developing Kaposi sarcoma.
When should I seek help?
If you have been diagnosed with HIV, see your doctor straight away 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.
Resources and support
- Cancer Council Australia provides services and support to all people affected by cancer. Call 13 11 2013 11 20.
- Rare Cancers Australia provides support for people with rare cancers.
- Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations provides information about HIV and AIDS.
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Last reviewed: September 2022