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HealthInfo Canterbury

Overview of giant cell arteritis (GCA)

Giant cell arteritis (GCA), also called temporal arteritis, is an uncommon but serious condition. It mainly affects people over the age of 50. It's caused by inflammation of some of the arteries that supply your head and neck.

The most common arteries to be affected are the temporal arteries, which are on each side of your forehead. If the arteries become very inflamed, they can block the blood supply and can sometimes cause permanent damage to the area the arteries supply.

As GCA can cause blindness and other visual problems, it's very important that it's treated urgently. If you're worried about symptoms of this condition, see your GP or after-hours healthcare service immediately.

Symptoms of giant cell arteritis

Symptoms of GCA can vary, but the most common symptom is a bad headache, which is often worse at night. Other, less common symptoms include:

You may also feel generally unwell, for example, feeling tired, depressed, feverish, losing weight, not wanting to eat. These symptoms can appear well before a headache or other specific symptom develops.

You may also have symptoms of polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR). This happens in about half of the people who get GCA. It can happen at the same time as GCA or it may happen before or afterwards.

If you're over 50 and have these symptoms, or a combination of these symptoms, it's possible that you might have GCA. Make an appointment with your GP as soon as possible. Your GP will ask you about your symptoms and how long you've had them.

Your GP will usually arrange a blood test to check for signs of inflammation. If the blood test shows signs of inflammation, and you have typical symptoms of GCA, it's likely that you have GCA. But the blood test can also signs of inflammation from other conditions. Also, the test can sometimes be normal even if you do have GCA.

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Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by rheumatologist, Department of Rheumatology, Immunology & Allergy, Canterbury DHB. Last reviewed November 2019.

Page reference: 438467

Review key: HIGCA-18689