Lymphangitis is inflammation (swelling) of the lymphatic system, which is a major part of the immune system. The lymphatic system consists of a network of organs, cells, ducts, and glands or “nodes” which can be found throughout the body, but are most apparent under the jaw, in the armpits, and in the groin.
Organs that make up the lymphatic system include:
- bone marrow
- thymus (a small organ located in the upper chest that helps white blood cells develop)
Immune cells called lymphocytes mature within the bone marrow and then travel to the lymph nodes and other organs within the lymphatic system to help protect the body against viruses and bacteria. The lymphatic system also filters a whitish-clear fluid called lymph, which contains bacteria-killing white blood cells. Lymph travels through the body along lymphatic vessels, or channels, and collects fats, bacteria, and other waste products from cells and tissues. The lymph nodes then filter these harmful materials out of the fluid and produce more white blood cells to fight infection.
Lymphangitis occurs when viruses and bacteria infect the channels of the lymphatic system, typically through a cut or wound that has become infected. There will often be tender red streaks going from the wound toward the nearest lymph glands. Other symptoms include fever, chills, and a general sense of illness.
If treated quickly, lymphangitis often goes away with no ill effects. If left untreated, complications can occur, and the condition can become very serious.
Lymphangitis occurs when bacteria or viruses enter the lymphatic channels. They may enter through a cut or wound, or they may grow from an existing infection.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), lymphangitis is most commonly caused by acute (sudden) streptococcal infection. It may also be caused by a staphylococcal (staph) infection. Both of these are bacterial infections. (NIH).
Lymphangitis may occur if a pre-existing skin infection is getting worse. This might mean that bacteria will soon enter the bloodstream. This can cause complications such as sepsis, a life-threatening condition of body-wide inflammation.
According to MedScape Reference (MSR), children with systemic illnesses are more likely to develop serious lymphangitis. (MSR) Conditions that increase your risk of lymphangitis include:
- immunodeficiency (loss of immune function)
- chronic steroid use
- varicella (chicken pox)
A cat or dog bite or a wound made in fresh water can also become infected and lead to lymphangitis. Gardeners and farmers may develop the condition if they get sporotrichosis, a soil-borne fungal infection.
Red streaks often trace the surface of the skin from the infected area to the nearest lymph gland. They may be faint or very visible and tender to the touch. They may extend from a wound or cut. In some cases, the streaks may blister.
Other symptoms include:
- swollen lymph glands
- general ill feeling (malaise)
- loss of appetite
- aching muscles
Your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam. He or she will feel your lymph nodes to check for swelling.
Your doctor may also order tests such as a biopsy (to reveal the cause of the swelling) or a blood culture (to see if the infection has moved into the blood).
Treatment should begin immediately to keep the condition from spreading. Your health care provider may prescribe the following:
- antibiotics, to treat infection
- pain medication
- anti-inflammatory medication, to reduce swelling
- surgery, to drain any abscesses that may have formed
- intravenous (IV) antimicrobial therapy, antibiotics given directly into the veins
You can help aid healing and ease pain by applying a hot compress at home. Run hot water over a washcloth or towel and apply it to the tender area. Apply three times a day. The warmth will promote blood flow and encourage healing. You can also do this by taking a warm shower and placing the shower-head over the infected area.
If possible, keep the infected area elevated. This helps reduce swelling and slows the spread of infection.
For mild pain relief, you can take over-the-counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Ask your doctor about using these drugs if you have liver or kidney disease or if you’ve ever had a stomach ulcer or GI bleeding (bleeding in the intestines).
Lymphangitis can spread quickly, leading to complications such as
- cellulitis (a skin infection)
- bacteremia (bacteria in the blood)
- sepsis (body-wide inflammation)
- abscess (painful collection of pus, usually with swelling and inflammation)
If bacteria enters the bloodstream, the condition is life-threatening. Visit your healthcare provider immediately if you experience any of the following:
- increasing pain or redness at the site of the infection
- growing red streaks
- pus or fluid coming from the lymph node
- fever over 100.5 degrees F for more than two days
Take antibiotics as prescribed to help prevent complications. Do not miss a dose, especially in the first few days of treatment.
If no complications occur, most patients make a full recovery. According to Medscape, antibiotics are effective in more than 90 percent of cases. This is only true, however, if complications haven’t occurred. (MS).
A full recovery may take weeks or months. Swelling and discomfort may be present in the meantime. The amount of time it takes to heal depends on the cause of the condition. Lymphangitis should be treated immediately to prevent complications.