Acute lymphangitis is a bacterial infection in the lymphatic vessels which is characterized by painful, red streaks below the skin surface. This is a potentially serious infection which can rapidly spread to the bloodstream and be fatal.
Acute lymphangitis affects a critical member of the immune system—the lymphatic system. Waste materials from nearly every organ in the body drain into the lymphatic vessels and are filtered in small organs called lymph nodes. Foreign bodies, such as bacteria or viruses, are processed in the lymph nodes to generate an immune response to fight an infection.
In acute lymphangitis, bacteria enter the body through a cut, scratch, insect bite, surgical wound, or other skin injury. Once the bacteria enter the lymphatic system, they multiply rapidly and follow the lymphatic vessel like a highway. The infected lymphatic vessel becomes inflamed, causing red streaks that are visible below the skin surface. The growth of the bacteria occurs so rapidly that the immune system does not respond fast enough to stop the infection.
If left untreated, the bacteria can cause tissue destruction in the area of the infection. A pus-filled, painful lump called an abscess may be formed in the infected area. Cellulitis, a generalized infection of the lower skin layers, may also occur. In addition, the bacteria may invade the bloodstream and cause septicemia. Lay people, for that reason, often call the red streaks seen in the skin "blood poisoning." Septicemia is a very serious illness and may be fatal.
Causes and symptoms
Acute lymphangitis is most often caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pyogenes. This potentially dangerous bacterium also causes strep throat, infections of the heart, spinal cord, and lungs, and in the 1990s has been called the "flesh-eating bacterium." Staphylococci bacteria may also cause lymphangitis.
Although anyone can develop lymphangitis, some people are more at risk. People who have had radical mastectomy (removal of a breast and nearby lymph nodes), a leg vein removed for coronary bypass surgery, or recurrent lymphangitis caused by tinea pedis (a fungal infection on the foot) are at an increased risk for lymphangitis.
The characteristic symptoms of acute lymphangitis are the wide, red streaks which travel from the site of infection to the armpit or groin. The affected areas are red, swollen, and painful. Blistering of the affected skin may occur. The bacterial infection causes a fever of 100-104°F (38°–40°C). In addition, a general ill feeling, muscle aches, headache, chills, and loss of appetite may be felt.
If lymphangitis is suspected, the person should call his or her doctor immediately or go to an emergency room. Acute lymphangitis could be diagnosed by the family doctor, infectious disease specialist, or an emergency room doctor. The painful, red streaks just below the skin surface and the high fever are diagnostic of acute lymphangitis. A sample of blood would be taken for culture to determine whether the bacteria have entered the bloodstream. A biopsy (removal of a piece of infected tissue) sample may be taken for culture to identify which type of bacteria is causing the infection. Diagnosis is immediate because it is based primarily on the symptoms. Most insurance policies should cover the expenses for the diagnosis and treatment of acute lymphangitis.
Because of the serious nature of this infection, treatment would begin immediately even before the bacterial culture results were available. The only treatment for acute lymphangitis is to give very large doses of an antibiotic, usually penicillin, through the vein. Growing streptococcal bacteria are usually eliminated rapidly and easily by penicillin. The antibiotic clindamycin may be included in the treatment to kill any streptococci which are not growing and are in a resting state. Alternatively, a "broad spectrum" antibiotic may be used which would kill many different kinds of bacteria.
Aspirin or other medications which reduce the pain and the fever may also be given. Medications which reduce any inflammation of the infected region may also be provided. The patient is likely to be hospitalized to administer the antibiotic and other medications and to closely monitor his or her condition. Surgical drainage of an abscess may be necessary.
Complete recovery is expected if antibiotic treatment is begun at an early stage of the infection. However, if untreated, acute lymphangitis can be a very serious and even deadly disease. Acute lymphangitis that goes untreated can spread, causing tissue damage. Extensive tissue damage would need to be repaired by plastic surgery. Spread of the infection into the bloodstream could be fatal.
Although acute lymphangitis can occur in anyone, good hygiene and general health may help to prevent infections.
Dajer, Tony. "A Lethal Scratch." Discover (Feb. 1998): 34-7.
Belinda Rowland, PhD
Biopsy—The process which removes a sample of diseased or infected tissue for microscopic examination to aid in diagnosis.
Lymphatic system—A component of the immune system consisting of vessels and nodes. Waste materials from organs drain into the lymphatic vessels and are filtered by the lymph nodes.
Septicemia—Disease caused by the presence and growth of bacteria in the bloodstream.