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Lymphangitis

Definition

Lymphangitis is an infection of the lymph vessels (channels). It is a common complication of certain bacterial infections.

See also: Lymphadenitis

Causes, incidence, and risk factors

The lymph system is a network of organs, lymph nodes, lymph ducts, and lymph vessels (or channels) that produce and move a fluid called lymph from tissues to the bloodstream. For more information on this part of the body, see lymph system.

Lymphangitis most often results from an acute streptococcal infection of the skin. Less frequently it results from a staphylococcal infection. The infection causes the lymph vessels to become inflamed.

Lymphangitis may be a sign that a skin infection is getting worse. It should raise concerns that bacteria may spread into the bloodstream, which can cause life-threatening problems.

Lymphangitis may be confused with a clot in a vein (thrombophlebitis).

Symptoms

  • Red streaks from infected area to the armpit or groin (may be faint or obvious)
  • Enlarged lymph nodes (glands) above the area of red streaks -- usually in the elbow, armpit, or groin
  • Throbbing pain along the affected area
  • Fever of 100 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Chills
  • General ill feeling (malaise)
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Muscle aches

Signs and tests

The doctor will perform a physical exam, which includes feeling your lymph nodes. The doctor may look for signs of injury around swollen lymph nodes.

A biopsy and culture of the affected area may reveal the cause of the inflammation. Blood cultures may be done to see if the infection has spread to the bloodstream.

Treatment

Lymphangitis may spread within hours. Treatment should begin promptly.

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat any underlying infection
  • Analgesics to control pain
  • Anti-inflammatory medications to reduce inflammation and swelling
  • Warm moist compresses to reduce inflammation and pain

Surgery may be needed to drain any abscess.

Expectations (prognosis)

Prompt treatment with antibiotics may result in complete recovery, though it may take weeks, or even months, for swelling to disappear. The amount of time until recovery occurs varies, depending on the underlying cause.

Complications

  • Abscess formation
  • Cellulitis
  • Sepsis

Calling your health care provider

Call your health care provider or go to the emergency room if you have symptoms of lymphangitis.

References

Stevens DL. Streptococcal infections. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 23rd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier. 2007: chap 312.

Review Date: 5/30/2009
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine; Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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