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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 lymph nodes, lymph ducts, lymph vessels, and organs 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 often, it is caused by 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

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

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:

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

Surgery may be needed to drain an abscess.

Expectations (prognosis)

Prompt treatment with antibiotics usually leads to a complete recovery. However, it may take weeks, or even months, for swelling to disappear. The amount of time it takes to recover depends on the cause.

Complications

  • Abscess
  • Cellulitis (a skin infection)
  • Sepsis (a general or bloodstream infection)

Calling your health care provider

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

References

Pasternack MS, Swartz MN. Lymphadenitis and lymphangitis. In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolin R, eds. Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2009:chap 92.

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


Review Date: 6/9/2011
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.
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