Superficial phlebitis is a condition where there is inflammation of a vein just under the skin, often in the leg.

The term “phlebitis” refers to inflammation of a vein, and “superficial” means that it affects veins near the skin’s surface, as opposed to deep vein thrombosis (DVT), which affects deeper, larger veins.

This article explains superficial phlebitis, including the symptoms, causes, and treatment.

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Some of the symptoms of superficial phlebitis include:

  • Redness and warmth: The skin over the affected vein often appears red or discolored. It may also feel warm or hot to the touch.
  • Pain and tenderness: There is usually pain or tenderness along the course of the inflamed vein. This pain might intensify when touching the area or when a person moves.
  • Swelling: Some swelling can occur along the vein or in the surrounding area.
  • Hardening of the vein: The affected vein may feel hard or rope-like and may be more prominent under the skin.
  • Skin changes: The skin over the vein can sometimes become itchy, irritated, or discolored.

It is important to note that phlebitis can look differently — and be more difficult to see — on dark skin tones.

Various factors can contribute to the development of superficial phlebitis. These include:

  • Vein injury: Direct injury to the vein, such as from a hard blow or trauma, can lead to phlebitis.
  • Varicose veins: People with varicose veins are at a higher risk, as these veins are already weakened and prone to inflammation.
  • Prolonged inactivity: Long periods of sitting or standing without movement can cause blood to pool in the veins, increasing the risk of phlebitis.
  • Intravenous (IV) catheter use: The insertion of IV catheters can irritate the vein, leading to inflammation.
  • Blood clotting disorders: Conditions that make blood more likely to clot can predispose an individual to phlebitis.
  • Infection: In some cases, an infection in the vein can cause phlebitis, especially if it is related to an IV catheter or injection.
  • Certain medications: Some medications, like those used for hormone replacement therapy or birth control, can increase the risk of blood clots and phlebitis.
  • Pregnancy: Pregnancy increases the pressure in the leg veins and changes hormonal levels, which can lead to superficial phlebitis.
  • Smoking: Smoking is a risk factor as it affects blood circulation and can lead to vascular issues.
  • Cancer and cancer treatments: Certain types of cancer and cancer treatments can increase the risk of blood clots and phlebitis.

Healthcare professionals diagnose superficial phlebitis primarily through physical examination and medical history.

The diagnostic process may include:

  • Medical history: The healthcare professional will ask about any symptoms, any recent injuries or surgeries, and a person’s medical history, including any history of varicose veins, blood clotting disorders, or the use of medications that might increase the risk of clotting.
  • Physical examination: They will examine the affected area to check for signs of warmth, tenderness, and swelling along the course of the superficial veins. They may also look for any skin discoloration or hardening of the vein.
  • Doppler ultrasound: If there is a suspicion of a deeper vein involvement or to rule out deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a Doppler ultrasound might be performed. This test uses sound waves to create images of blood flow in the veins.

Treatment for superficial phlebitis typically focuses on relieving symptoms, reducing inflammation, and preventing complications.

Some self-care resources and actions people can take advantage of include:

  • Warm compresses: Applying a warm cloth or heating pad to the affected area can help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Leg elevation: Elevating the affected leg can help reduce swelling and discomfort.
  • Rest: Limiting movement of the affected area to some extent can help with reducing pain and inflammation.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Topical treatments: Topical NSAIDs or creams can provide local relief from pain and swelling.
  • Compression stockings: Wearing graduated compression stockings can help improve blood flow and reduce swelling in the affected leg.
  • Physical activity: Moderate physical activity, such as walking, can improve blood circulation and support healing.

For those with a higher risk of blood clot formation, especially in individuals with a history of blood clots or clotting disorders, healthcare professionals may prescribe anticoagulant medications.

Addressing any underlying conditions, such as varicose veins or blood clotting disorders, is important to prevent recurrence. Regular follow-up with a healthcare professional is important to monitor the condition and prevent complications, especially if the phlebitis is near the groin or presents other risk factors for complications.

Superficial phlebitis is generally a benign condition, but it can sometimes lead to complications, especially if not treated correctly or if underlying risk factors are present.

Some possible complications include:

  • Infection: The inflamed area can become infected, leading to cellulitis or abscess formation. This may require antibiotic treatment.
  • Blood clot formation: Although less common than with deep vein thrombosis (DVT), blood clots can form in the superficial veins and potentially migrate to deeper veins.
  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT): Sometimes the clot from a superficial vein can extend into a deep vein. DVT is a more serious condition because it increases the risk of a pulmonary embolism.
  • Pulmonary embolism (PE): Though rare with superficial phlebitis, there’s a small risk that a blood clot could break loose, travel through the bloodstream, and lodge in the lungs, causing PE, which is a medical emergency.
  • Recurrence: People with superficial phlebitis may experience recurrent episodes, especially if they have varicose veins or other chronic conditions that affect blood flow.
  • Post-phlebitic syndrome: Some people may experience long-term swelling, pain, discoloration, and scaling in the affected limb after experiencing phlebitis that leads to DVT.
  • Venous insufficiency: Chronic inflammation of the veins can lead to damage, resulting in chronic venous insufficiency, where the veins cannot effectively return blood to the heart.

Preventing superficial phlebitis involves addressing the factors that increase the risk of vein inflammation and clot formation.

Some ways to try to prevent it include:

  • maintaining regular physical activity
  • avoiding prolonged inactivity, such as sitting for extended periods
  • staying hydrated
  • maintaining a moderate body weight
  • quitting smoking if you smoke
  • wearing compression socks
  • managing any underlying medical conditions affecting vascular health, such as high cholesterol and high blood pressure
  • elevating the legs

The outlook for people receiving a superficial phlebitis diagnosis is generally good, especially when the condition is promptly and properly treated. Most superficial phlebitis diagnoses resolve without serious complications.

Symptoms of superficial phlebitis often improve quickly with medical treatment along with self-care measures, such as warm compresses, the elevation of the affected limb, anti-inflammatory medications, and compression stockings.

While superficial phlebitis can be painful and uncomfortable, it rarely leads to severe complications, such as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism, especially if treated early and appropriately.

Some people may experience recurrent episodes of superficial phlebitis, particularly if they have ongoing risk factors such as varicose veins, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, or a history of blood clotting disorders.

Superficial phlebitis is inflammation of a vein near the surface of the skin.

While superficial phlebitis is generally less likely than DVT to lead to severe complications, it can sometimes be associated with more serious health issues, particularly if the inflammation is near a junction where a superficial vein meets a deeper vein.

With proper care and management, individuals with superficial phlebitis can expect a good recovery and can often prevent future episodes by addressing risk factors and making lifestyle changes.