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What Is Lymphangitis?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on June 21, 2021

Lymphangitis, by definition, is the inflammation of the lymphatic system caused by an infection. The lymphatic system is one of the significant components of your body that makes up the immune system. It comprises a network of organs, glands, cells, and ducts. The glands, also known as nodes, are located throughout your body. 

You can feel them under your jaw, in the groin, and in the armpits. Other organs that make up the lymphatic system are the:

  • Tonsils, which are in the throat.
  • Spleen, which is found in the abdomen and works to purify the blood.
  • Thymus, which is in the upper chest and assists in the development of white blood cells.

Causes of Lymphangitis

The lymphatic system is crucial in helping your body fight infections. The lymph vessels carry lymph fluid to an infection site and deliver lymphocytes or white blood cells to fight the disease. 

Lymph fluid also collects bacteria, fats, and waste products from body tissues and cells. The lymph nodes work by filtering these waste products out of the lymph fluid. They also produce more white blood cells to fight infections.

Sometimes, infected lymph fluid gets to the lymph vessels and causes lymphangitis. Red streaks find their way from wounds and enter the nearest lymph glands. The vessels become infected and inflamed.

Any injury or wound that allows fungus, bacteria, or a virus to get into the body can cause an infection that affects the lymph system. The most common infections responsible for the condition are bacterial infections, but viral or fungal lymphangitis is also possible.

Common culprits for the infection include:

  • Severe or untreated skin infections, like cellulitis
  • Insect bites and stings
  • Puncture wounds that form as a result of stepping on sharp objects
  • Wounds that require stitching
  • Infected surgical wounds
  • Sporotrichosis, which is a fungal skin infection common among gardeners

Lymphangitis is also sometimes an indication that an infection is getting worse. If the bacteria spread into your blood, they can lead to complications like sepsis, a life-threatening condition where the entire body is inflamed.

Some factors that can increase your risk of having your lymph system infected include:

Lymphangitis can also happen because of non-infectious causes. These include cancer and various forms of tumors.

If treated quickly, lymphangitis causes no side effects. Left untreated, it can have fatal consequences.

Symptoms of Lymphangitis

One of the outstanding symptoms of lymphangitis is red streaks. You will notice reddish stripes extending from the injury site to areas where you have a lot of lymph glands, especially the groin and armpits. They may be common if you have an existing skin infection. Look out for other symptoms of lymphangitis like:

If you feel ill following an injury or have a high fever and other symptoms of lymphangitis, you need to see a doctor.

Diagnosis of Lymphangitis

Your doctor will perform a physical examination to establish the presence of lymphangitis. The analysis entails looking for swollen lymph nodes and signs of injury around them. If you have an injury and red streaks extending from it, your doctor will begin treatment with antibiotics.

A thorough exam will follow to establish the cause of the initial infection. Doing so will enable the doctor to put you under the proper treatment. In most cases, a culture of the injury will be the method to reveal the nature of the infection. Once the results are out, the doctor may change the initial treatment or add further medication to your treatment plan.

Sometimes, a biopsy may be necessary on any swollen lymph nodes. This will help rule out other conditions with closely similar symptoms. Bloodwork will also help in cases where the cause of the infection is unclear.

Treatment of Lymphangitis

Lymphangitis should be treated as soon as possible to prevent it from spreading. Doctors recommend aggressive and immediate treatment of the infection responsible for lymphangitis. When bacterial infection is the underlying cause, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. Medication administered through the vein works faster, so you may need to receive IV antibiotics in the doctor’s office.

Where the underlying cause is a fungal or viral infection, your doctor will prescribe antifungal or antiviral medication. Depending on your body's response to the first round of treatment, you may need an additional dose. Only in rare cases will you require surgery to remove the infected tissue.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Family Physician: “Red Streaks on the Leg.”

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Dermatology Online Journal: “Nodular lymphangitis: Report of a case with presentation of a diagnostic paradigm.”

IRANIAN JOURNAL OF MEDICAL SCIENCES: “Peripheral Lymphadenopathy: Approach and diagnostic Tools.”

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UpToDate: “Lyphangitis.”

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