You may have DVT, deep vein thrombosis, if you notice that one limb is swollen, painful, warm, and red. But other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Some of them, like minor cuts, fractures, or sprains, are relatively harmless, and others are more serious. Either way, you’ll need help from your doctor, if only to be sure of the problem. Compare some of these conditions below.
Deep Vein Thrombosis
You can get DVT at any age, and several things can cause it. Some of them are:
- Injury to a vein
- Bed rest
- Sitting for a long time, such as on a flight
- Birth control pills
- Hormone replacement therapy
- Chronic diseases like heart disease, lung disease, cancer, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis
- Family history of DVT or pulmonary embolism
- A medical condition that raises your risk for blood clots
DVT normally affects just one leg. Symptoms include:
About half of people who get it won’t have any signs. You may not know you have a clot unless a piece of it breaks off and travels to your lung. That’s a medical emergency. Call 911 right away if you have:
- Shortness of breath
- Pain when you take a deep breath
- Coughing up blood
- Racing heart rate
- Rapid breathing
If a piece of the clot breaks off and travels to your lungs, it can cause a pulmonary embolism -- a blood clot in your lung. This can be deadly.
This happens when a blood clot forms in a vein just under your skin. If you have it, you may have:
These symptoms are much like those of DVT, but the two conditions are different. DVT happens deep within your body. Superficial thrombophlebitis is close to the surface.
About 20% of people who have superficial thrombophlebitis also get a blood clot in their leg. Call your doctor if you notice anything unusual. They’ll be able to rule out a more serious problem..
Learn about common tests for thrombophlebitis.
Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD)
You get this when the arteries in your legs become hard and narrow. In PAD, plaque builds up in the arteries. Over time, it can block blood flow to your arms and legs. When this condition affects veins instead of arteries, it’s called peripheral vascular disease (PVD). It can cause DVT.
Some of the symptoms are:
- Pain, numbness, aching, or heaviness in your legs when you walk
- Cramps in your feet, leg, or butt
- Sores or wounds on your feet or legs that don’t get better
- Pale or bluish-colored skin
- One leg feels cooler than the other.
PAD isn’t a medical emergency, but lack of blood flow to your legs can cause serious problems like gangrene. That’s when the tissue in your leg dies.
You’ll also have a greater risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. But when you make changes to manage your condition, you’ll lower your chances of getting those, too. The same risks that lead to heart attacks and strokes also cause PAD. They include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol.
Read more about peripheral artery disease.
Unlike DVT, these appear just beneath the surface of your skin. You get them when the valves inside your veins become weak or damaged. Normally, the valves help blood flow to your heart. When they don’t work right, blood pools inside your veins. They swell and become large and rope-like. That’s another difference from DVT -- the surface-level clots that come with varicose veins don’t usually break free and travel to your lungs. When DVTs do this, it’s called a pulmonary embolism, and it can be fatal.
If you have varicose veins, you’ll notice:
- Swollen ankles and feet
- Throbbing or cramping in your legs
- Itchy lower legs or ankles
- Achy, painful legs
- Heaviness in your legs
Varicose veins aren’t serious. Talk to your doctor about treatments.
Get information on medical and nonmedical treatments for varicose veins.
These are a smaller type of varicose veins. They affect your capillaries, the smallest blood vessels in your body.
You’re most likely to get these on your legs or face. They look like a spider web or the branches on a tree. They’re usually a blue or reddish color. You may not like how they look, but they don’t cause any medical problems.
And because they’re like varicose veins, spider veins also differ from DVT because they’re close to the surface and don’t tend to break free and move into your lungs.
See a photo of what spider veins look like.
Here, bacteria infect the skin. The first signs can mirror DVT, with skin that’s red, swollen, warm, and sensitive to the touch. Other possible symptoms, like chills, fever, nausea, drowsiness, and trouble thinking, are less likely in DVT. The same goes for the red streaks, bumps, or sores that might appear on your skin.
Get care right away if you notice these signs, because it can be very serious if you don’t treat it.
It’s inflammation of the blood vessels. This can lessen essential blood flow to your organs and other tissue. There are almost 20 versions of the disease, but all seem to happen when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue (autoimmune disease). Doctors don’t know exactly what causes it, though possible triggers appear to include genes, medication, infection, environment, allergies, and other illnesses.
Symptoms vary by person and the type of disease, but may include:
- Rashes or skin lesions (more than just the swelling and darkening in DVT)
- Pain: Aches in your muscles, belly, joints, or head (uncommon in DVT except in affected limb)
- Lack of appetite and weight loss (uncommon in DVT)
- Tiredness and fever (uncommon in DVT)
- Blurry vision, eye pain, and redness (uncommon in DVT)
- Ear or sinus problems that don’t go away (uncommon in DVT)
- Shortness of breath and coughing (could cough up blood)
- Tingling, numbness, weakness, and nerve pain (neuropathy) (uncommon in DVT)
- Bloody or dark-colored urine (could be kidney problems) (uncommon in DVT)
Acute Arterial Occlusion
It means a blocked artery, and it typically happens in a previously open blood vessel that shows signs of plaque (atherosclerosis) or other damage, or that doctors previously repaired with a stent or graft.
The artery becomes blocked in one of two ways:
- It slowly narrows to a close as plaque builds up
- Tiny networks of blood vessels (vaso vasorum) in the plaqued walls of an artery tear, and the blood and fluid form a clot.
- Pain in the affected limb gets gradually worse and spreads slowly toward the trunk of your body. (DVT pain tends to center on thrombosis.)
- The skin of the limb is typically cool to the touch. (DVT typically warms the skin.)
- Skin looks pale and patchy because of lack of blood supply to the skin’s surface. (DVT typically reddens skin.)
- Skin can blister as the condition worsens. (uncommon in DVT)
- You and your doctor may not be able to feel a normal pulse in the affected limb. (uncommon in DVT)
- Burning or prickling sensation, typically in the legs, feet, hand or arms (possible, but uncommon, in DVT)
Also known as “flesh-eating disease,” it’s a life-threatening infection that spreads quickly and kills the body’s soft tissue (muscle, fat, and tissue connecting muscle to bone). Injury or surgery can create a break in the skin that may lead to infection if the right bacteria are around.
If you're healthy, have a strong immune system, and wash properly, you’re unlikely to get it. It’s treated with antibiotics through a vein, along with surgical removal of infected tissue. Early symptoms can include:
- An area of skin where redness, warmth, or swelling spreads quickly
- Serious pain, including beyond the skin obviously affected
- Fever (uncommon in DVT)
Later symptoms might include:
It’s a kidney illness that causes your body to pass too much protein when you pee. It’s typically due to damage to the tiny blood vessels in your kidneys (glomeruli) that filter waste and extra fluid from your blood. A number of conditions can cause this damage, including diabetic kidney disease, amyloidosis, glomerulosclerosis, and lupus. Typical symptoms include:
- Swelling from fluid buildup (edema), especially around ankles, feet, and eyes, often on both sides (instead of just one in DVT)
- Foamy urine, a result of excess protein in your urine (uncommon in DVT)
- Weight gain due to fluid retention (uncommon in DVT)
- Tiredness (uncommon in DVT)
- Loss of appetite (uncommon in DVT)
Congestive Heart Failure
Heart failure means the heart doesn’t pump as well as it should. Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a type that happens when blood flows too slowly out of the heart. This causes a backup of the blood trying to return to the heart and lungs for more oxygen.
The pressure causes a buildup of fluid (edema) that can collect, most often in the legs and ankles, but other areas as well. CHF also could increase the work of your kidneys, which often leads to edema. The swelling could mirror DVT, but it typically happens in both legs, instead of just one as in DVT.
Fluid that collects in the lungs (pulmonary edema) can cause shortness of breath that mirrors the symptoms of a pulmonary embolism that can happen with DVT. Symptoms typically worsen when you lie down.
It typically happens when doctors remove or damage one or more of your lymph nodes -- small glands that help get rid of fluid, waste, and germs -- as part of cancer treatment. This stops fluid from draining, and that causes arms, legs, feet, and other areas to swell. There’s no cure, but your doctor can help you manage it with movement exercises, massage, and bandages that push on swollen areas.
As with DVT, lymphedema often causes swelling or tightness in all or part of an affected limb. Also like DVT, symptoms are sometimes so mild that you don’t notice. Unlike DVT, the swelling can often include your fingers or toes. Other symptoms include:
- A feeling of heaviness in affected legs (uncommon in DVT)
- A hard time moving as freely
- A general aching or discomfort (DVT pain tends to center on a specific area.)
- Infections that repeat (uncommon in DVT)
- Skin that hardens and thickens (fibrosis)
It’s when blood pools in the veins. It happens when the valves in your veins stop working properly, so the blood moves backward and collects. This pushes fluid into nearby tissue, which can cause swelling and irritation that looks like DVT. Over time, this inflammation can start to break down tissue and lead to sores or “ulcers” on the surface of the skin (uncommon in DVT).
You may feel full, achy, and tired in your legs, and it may get worse when you stand. You also might notice varicose veins on the skin of your legs.
Acute Compartment Syndrome
Your muscles group together in your arm, leg, hand, or foot, along with blood vessels and nerves. Each group is enclosed in tissue (fascia), and together, they make up a “compartment.”
When the pressure builds up inside one of these compartments, it can cause swelling and tenderness that mirror symptoms of DVT. Unlike DVT, acute compartment syndrome typically happens soon after a sudden injury like a fracture. Other possible causes include a serious burn that scars skin or surgery to repair a blocked blood vessel. You may also notice:
- Tightness in affected muscle
- Intense pain, especially if you stretch muscle (more than expected for injury)
- Tingling or burning feeling
- Numbness or weakness (may be signs of permanent damage)
Acute compartment syndrome is a medical emergency and requires treatment right away.