Symptoms of Kaposi's Sarcoma

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Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) is a type of cancer in which tumors with tiny blood vessels grow beneath the surface of the skin, as well as in the mouth, nose, eyes, and anus.

The symptoms of KS include tumors, or  lesions, that form on the skin or mucous membranes, the inner lining of some organs and body parts, including the lymph nodes, lungs, or digestive tract, where they may produce less obvious symptoms.

Female doctor examining patient's skin, looking through magnifyng glass

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Types of Kaposi's Sarcoma

There are four types of Kaposi's sarcoma.

  • Epidemic (AIDS-associated) Kaposi's sarcoma: This is the most common type of KS in the United States. It develops in people who are infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, the virus that causes AIDS).
  • Classic Kaposi's sarcoma : This type of KS affects older men, usually of Italian, Eastern European, or Jewish heritage.
  • Endemic Kaposi's sarcoma: Endemic means that this cancer occurs regularly in a certain part of the world. This type of KS typically affects children and young adults from parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Immunosuppressive Kaposi's sarcoma: This type of KS affects people whose immune systems are weakened by immunosuppressant drugs, such as those given after organ transplantation.

Frequent Symptoms

Different types of KS may present with slightly different symptoms. The first symptom of any type of KS is usually a colored spot on the skin (lesion). The lesions usually start out small and flat. They do not cause any pain or itching.

Color

KS lesions can range in color from pink to brown to brownish red to vivid purple. Lesions can look like bruises, but they do not lose their color when pressed, the way bruises do.

The lesions can appear as:

  • Flat areas on the skin (patches)
  • Slightly raised areas (plaques)
  • Raised bumps (nodules)

Location

KS lesions can develop anywhere on the skin, but they are commonly seen on the legs and face and in the groin area. Lesions on the legs or in the groin area sometimes block the flow of fluid from the legs, which can cause painful swelling in the legs and feet.

In AIDS-associated KS, oral lesions (in the palate and on the gums) are common and can lead to difficulty swallowing (dysphagia) and infections.

In classic KS, the lesions are typically only on the legs, ankles, or the soles of the feet.

Site-Specific Symptoms

Other KS symptoms depend on where the cancer is in the body. For example:

  • If the lymph nodes are affected, you may have swollen lymph nodes.
  • If the lymph vessels are damaged, you may have a buildup of fluid in the arms, legs, face, and genitals (lymphedema).

KS in the skin may grow very slowly and show no changes for a few months. Some grow more quickly, with new areas appearing weekly.

Rare Symptoms

KS can affect the internal organs, including the lungs, liver, spleen, and digestive system, but this is less common than KS that affects the skin.

When KS affects areas other than the skin, there are not always visible signs or symptoms.

When the lesions occur in the stomach or intestines, bowel movements can become black and tarry or bloody. Lung lesions can cause difficulty breathing, a dry cough, and even coughing up blood.

Sometimes, the internal lesions can bleed slowly. Over time, this can cause low numbers of red blood cells (anemia). People with anemia can have symptoms such as fatigue, and they may feel short of breath.

An aggressive form of endemic KS can spread quickly to the bones. Another form of endemic KS found in children in sub-Saharan Africa does not affect the skin. Rather, it spreads through the lymph nodes and vital organs, quickly becoming deadly.

If you are coughing up blood, having difficulty swallowing, or are experiencing black stools, tell your healthcare provider. If you cough or vomit a large amount of blood, call 911 or seek emergency care.

Complications

The most common complications of KS include secondary cancers and infections.

Patients with AIDS-associated KS have a significantly increased risk of developing cancer of the anus and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancers of the tongue and penis, as well as acute lymphocytic leukemia, are also significantly associated with Kaposi's sarcoma.

Some patients with classic KS develop another type of cancer—most often non-Hodgkin lymphoma—before the KS lesions appear. Frequent follow-ups are needed to watch for secondary cancers.

When to See a Doctor

If you are experiencing symptoms of KS, your doctor can do tests to confirm or rule it out.

People infected with HIV are much more likely to develop KS. Many experts recommend that people living with HIV are examined regularly by healthcare providers who are experienced in recognizing KS.

Summary

Kaposi's sarcoma (KS) causes cancerous lesions on the skin, mucous membranes, lymph nodes, and other organs. The condition is most common in people with HIV or suppressed immune systems.

KS lesions on the skin are the most common, however, this type of KS may not have any obvious symptoms. When lesions occur elsewhere in the body, like the digestive tract, the symptoms might be more obvious (such as bloody stool).

A Word From Verywell

If you have HIV or are immunocompromised, you might develop Kaposi's sarcoma. Talk to your doctor about the signs and symptoms of KS and make sure you tell your doctor if you develop them.

If you've already been diagnosed with KS, it's important to follow up with your doctor regularly to provide an update on any changes to your health. Even if KS does not get worse, people with the disease sometimes develop secondary cancers.

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6 Sources
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