Lymphangitis is an infection of the lymph vessels that carry lymphatic fluid throughout the body.
Lymphangitis usually requires antibiotic treatment. Skin infections are the most common cause of lymphangitis.
The body’s lymph fluid and the lymphatic system help a person to fight infections. Usually, lymph fluid travels to an infection site to deliver lymphocytes to help fight the infection. Lymphocytes are white blood cells.
Sometimes, infected lymph fluid in one area of the body travels to the lymph vessels, causing lymphangitis.
In this article, learn more about the causes and symptoms of lymphangitis, as well as how doctors diagnose and treat it.
Lymphangitis is a type of secondary infection, which means it happens because of another infection.
When the infection travels from the original site to the lymph vessels, the vessels become inflamed and infected.
Bacterial infections are the most common cause of lymphangitis. Lymphangitis due to a viral or fungal infection is also possible.
Any injury that allows a virus, bacteria, or fungus to enter the body can cause an infection that leads to lymphangitis. Some possible culprits include:
- puncture wounds, such as from stepping on a nail or other sharp object
- untreated or severe skin infections, such as cellulitis
- insect bites and stings
- a wound that requires stitches
- infected surgical wounds
- sporotrichosis, a fungal skin infection common among gardeners
People with lymphangitis may notice red streaks extending from the site of an injury to areas where there are a lot of lymph glands, such as the armpits or groin.
Unexplained red streaks on any area of the body could also be a sign of lymphangitis, especially in a person who has an existing skin infection.
Other symptoms of lymphangitis can include:
- a recent wound that is not healing
- feeling sick or weak
- a fever
- a headache
- low energy and loss of appetite
- swelling near an injury or the groin or armpits
Lymphangitis can spread to the blood if left untreated. This life-threatening infection called sepsis may cause a very high fever, flu-like symptoms, and even organ failure.
A person who feels very ill following an injury, or who has a high fever and symptoms of lymphangitis, should seek emergency medical attention.
People with weak immune systems may be more vulnerable to lymphangitis. Having certain conditions, such as diabetes, HIV, or cancer, or taking drugs that suppress the immune system, including chemotherapy drugs, may all increase the risk of lymphangitis.
People with signs of skin infections who have these conditions should speak to their doctor.
A doctor may suspect lymphangitis based on a person’s symptoms alone. If a person has swollen lymph nodes, red streaks extending from an injury, or other signs of infection, a doctor may begin treatment with antibiotics.
They will also typically conduct a thorough exam to find the source of the original infection since this can help with choosing the right treatment.
Often, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics while waiting for the results of a culture. A culture of the injury can reveal whether the infection is bacterial, viral, or fungal, and which medication will be most effective.
With the results of a culture, a doctor may change the treatment or add further medication to the person’s treatment plan.
In some cases, a doctor might also perform a biopsy of any swollen lymph nodes to rule out other conditions. Blood work may also be helpful, especially if the cause of the infection is unclear.
Lymphangitis can spread quickly, so doctors typically recommend aggressive treatment of the underlying infection.
In most cases, a person will need antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection. Intravenous (IV) antibiotics can deliver the medication faster, so a person may need to receive IV antibiotics in the hospital or at a doctor’s office.
If the infection is fungal or viral, a doctor will prescribe antifungal or antiviral medications.
If the first round of medication does not kill the infection, a person may need another round of medication. Rarely, an individual may require surgery to remove infected tissue.
Lymphangitis can be very painful. To help with the pain, a person can try:
- applying warm compresses to the injury and areas with red streaks
- using anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen
- taking prescription-strength pain relievers from a doctor
Recovering from lymphangitis can take days, weeks, or even months. The speed of recovery depends on how serious the infection was and how healthy a person was before the infection.
People with weak immune systems, very young infants, and older adults may take longer to recover.
With treatment, the infection should quickly stop spreading. To assess whether treatment is working, a doctor may outline red streaks with a marker or take pictures to see whether they contract or continue to spread following treatment.
If more streaks appear, a wound seems to get worse, or a person develops additional symptoms, it may be a sign that treatment is not working.
Some lymphangitis infections damage skin, muscle, or other tissue. Recovering from these complications can take time.
A person who has surgery to remove damaged tissue may need physical therapy to recover. In most cases, however, people can return to their normal lives soon after a lymphangitis infection heals.
Recurrent lymphangitis is more likely to occur if a person does not receive the correct treatment for the original infection that caused lymphangitis. For example, people with athlete’s foot that turns into lymphangitis may develop lymphangitis again if treatment does not fully eradicate athlete’s foot.
People with weak immune systems may be prone to developing recurrent lymphangitis because their bodies are less able to fight off infections.
Lymphangitis can be painful and frightening if a person does not know what the red streaks are. As it spreads quickly, it is not safe to attempt home treatment or to wait and see if it gets better or worse.
With prompt medical treatment, however, recovery is usually quick. Even for people with serious underlying health issues, treatment can be highly effective.
A person who thinks they have lymphangitis should call their doctor or go to the emergency room, especially if they have a fever or feel very ill.
Some people are reluctant to go to the doctor for a skin injury. Erring on the side of caution can be life-saving and can help ensure that treatment is as quick and effective as possible.