Lymphangitis

Definition

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

Causes

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.

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. The bacteria can spread into the blood, and cause life-threatening problems.

Symptoms

  • Chills
  • Enlarged and tender 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

Exams 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. A blood culture may be done to see if the infection has spread to the blood.

Treatment

Lymphangitis may spread within hours. Treatment should begin promptly.

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics to treat any infection
  • Pain medicine to control pain
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines to reduce inflammation and swelling
  • Warm, moist compresses to reduce inflammation and pain

Surgery may be needed to drain an abscess.

Outlook (Prognosis)

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

Possible Complications

When to Contact a Medical Professional

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. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 92.

Revision

Last reviewed 5/19/2013 by 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 A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.

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