What is lymphangitis?
Lymphangitis is an inflammation of the lymphatic system, which is a major component of your immune system.
Your lymphatic system is a network of organs, cells, ducts, and glands. The glands are also called nodes and can be found throughout your body. They are most apparent under your jaw, in your armpits, and in your groin.
Organs that make up the lymphatic system include your:
- tonsils, which are located in your throat
- spleen, an organ in your abdomen that purifies your blood, among other functions
- thymus, an organ in your upper chest that helps white blood cells develop
Immune cells called lymphocytes mature within your bone marrow and then travel to your lymph nodes and other organs within the lymphatic system to help protect your 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 your body along lymphatic vessels and collects fats, bacteria, and other waste products from cells and tissues. Your lymph nodes then filter these harmful materials out of the fluid and produce more white blood cells to fight off the infection.
Infectious lymphangitis occurs when viruses and bacteria invade the vessels of your lymphatic system, typically through an infected cut or wound. Tender red streaks often radiate from the wound toward the nearest lymph glands. Other symptoms include fever, chills, and a general sense of illness.
If it’s treated quickly, lymphangitis often goes away with no ill effects. If left untreated, complications can occur, and the condition can become very serious.
Lymphangitis is sometimes incorrectly called blood poisoning. It’s also sometimes mistaken for thrombophlebitis, which is a clot in a vein.
Infectious 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.
The most common infectious cause of lymphangitis is acute streptococcal infection. It may also be the result of a staphylococcal (staph) infection. Both of these are bacterial infections.
Lymphangitis may occur if you already have a skin infection and it’s getting worse. This might mean that bacteria will soon enter your bloodstream. Complications such as sepsis, a life-threatening condition of body-wide inflammation, can occur as a result.
Conditions that increase your risk of lymphangitis include:
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.
There are also noninfectious causes of lymphangitis. Inflammation of lymph vessels can occur due to malignancy: Breast, lung, stomach, pancreas, rectal, and prostate cancers are common types of tumors that can lead to lymphangitis. Lymphangitis has also been seen in those with Crohn’s disease.
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
- malaise, or a general ill feeling
- loss of appetite
- aching muscles
To diagnose lymphangitis, your doctor will perform a physical exam. They’ll feel your lymph nodes to check for swelling.
Treatment should begin immediately to keep the condition from spreading. Your doctor may recommend the following:
- antibiotics, if the cause is bacterial — in the form of oral medication or intravenous antimicrobial therapy, which involves antibiotics given directly into your veins
- pain medication
- anti-inflammatory medication
- surgery to drain any abscesses that may have formed
- surgical debridement, or removal, of a node if it’s causing obstruction
You can aid healing and ease the pain by using a hot compress at home. Run hot water over a washcloth or towel and apply it to the tender area. Do this three times a day. The warmth will promote blood flow and encourage healing. For the same reason, you might also want to take warm showers, positioning the showerhead 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 medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil). Ask your doctor about using these drugs if you have liver or kidney disease or if you’ve ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, such as bleeding in your intestines.
Lymphangitis can spread quickly, leading to complications such as:
- cellulitis, a skin infection
- bacteremia, or bacteria in your blood
- sepsis, a body-wide infection that’s life-threatening
- abscess, a painful collection of pus that’s usually accompanied by swelling and inflammation
If bacteria enter your bloodstream, the condition can be 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 101°F (38.3°C) for more than two days
Take antibiotics as prescribed to help prevent complications. Don’t miss a dose, especially in the first few days of treatment.
If no complications occur, most people make a full recovery from lymphangitis. 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.
Immediate treatment for lymphangitis can help prevent complications. So if you suspect you have lymphangitis, see your doctor right away.