Lymphangitis is an infection of the lymphatic vessels that carry lymphatic fluid throughout the body. Lymphangitis usually requires treatment with antibiotics. Skin infections are the most common cause of lymphangitis.
The body’s lymphatic fluid and the lymphatic system help a person fight infection. Lymphatic fluid usually travels to an infection site to release lymphocytes to help fight infection. Lymphocytes are white blood cells. Sometimes infected lymphatic fluid in one area of the body travels to the lymphatic vessels, causing lymphangitis.
Lymphangitis is a type of secondary infection, which means that it occurs due to another infection. When the infection travels from the original site to the lymphatic 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:
- Sharp wounds, such as stepping on a nail or other sharp object.
- Untreated or serious skin infections, such as cellulitis.
- Insect bites and stings.
- A wound that requires stitches.
- Infected surgical wounds.
- Sporotrichosis, a common skin fungal infection among gardeners
People with lymphangitis may notice red streaks extending from the injury site to areas where there are many lymph nodes, such as the armpits or groin. Unexplained red streaks anywhere on the body could also be a sign of lymphangitis, especially in a person who has a skin infection. Other symptoms of lymphangitis can include:
- A recent wound that is not healing.
- Feeling sick or weak
- A cold.
- Low energy and loss of appetite.
- Swelling near an injury or the groin or armpits.
Lymphangitis can spread to the blood if it is not treated. This life-threatening infection called sepsis can cause a very high fever, flu-like symptoms, and even organ failure. A person who feels very ill after 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, can increase the risk of lymphangitis. People with signs of skin infections who have these conditions should talk to their doctor.
A doctor may suspect lymphangitis based on the symptoms of a single person. If a person has swollen lymph nodes, red streaks extending from injury, or other signs of infection, a doctor may begin antibiotic treatment. They also usually do a thorough examination to find the source of the original infection, as this can help in choosing the appropriate treatment.
Often times, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics while waiting for the results of a culture. A culture of the lesion 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 can change treatment or add more drugs to the person’s treatment plan.
In some cases, a doctor may also biopsy swollen lymph nodes to rule out other conditions. Blood work can also be helpful, especially if the cause of the infection is unclear.
Woman applying warm wet compress to skin on back of hand
A person can help relieve her pain by applying a warm compress to the injury.
Lymphangitis can spread rapidly, so doctors often 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 medicine faster, so a person may need to receive antibiotics through a vein in the hospital or doctor’s office.
If the infection is fungal or viral, a doctor will prescribe antifungal or antiviral medications. If the medication does not kill the infection, a person may need another round of medication. In rare cases, a person may require surgery to remove the infected tissue. Lymphangitis can be very painful. To help with pain, a person can try:
- Apply warm compresses to the lesion and areas with red stripes.
- UsR of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen.
- Take a doctor’s prescription strength pain reliever.
Recovery from lymphangitis can take days, weeks, or even months. The speed of recovery depends on the severity of the infection and the health of a person prior to infection. People with weak immune systems, very young babies, and older adults may take longer to recover.
With treatment, the infection should stop spreading quickly. To assess whether the treatment is working, a doctor may draw red streaks with a marker or take pictures to see if they shrink or continue to spread after treatment. If more streaks appear, the wound appears to be getting worse, or if a person develops additional symptoms, it may be a sign that treatment is not working. Some lymphangitis infections damage the skin, muscles, or other tissues. Recovery from these complications can take time.
A person who will have surgery to remove damaged tissue may need physical therapy to recover. However, in most cases, people can return to their normal lives shortly after the lymphangitis infection heals. Some people develop recurrent lymphangitis. This is a type of chronic lymphangitis that goes away with treatment and then comes back.
Recurrent lymphangitis is more likely to occur if a person does not receive the correct treatment for the original infection that caused the lymphangitis. For example, people with athlete’s foot that progresses to lymphangitis may develop lymphangitis again if treatment does not completely eradicate athlete’s foot. People with weak immune systems may be prone to developing recurrent lymphangitis because their bodies are less able to fight infection.