Phlebitis is a local, painful inflammation of the wall of a blood vessel. This inflammation is caused by the development of a clot in a superficial vein. This is a vein, which runs just below the skin. Phlebitis usually occurs in the leg, but it can also affect the arms. Phlebitis is generally harmless with few symptoms.
Phlebitis is usually caused by varicose veins, but it can also be caused by physical injury (for example by falling, punchung or stabbing), by irritation due to, for instance, an infusion needle, allergies and other inflammatory sources in the body. Phlebitis often also occurs as a side effect of administering chemotherapy into the artery where the chemo has been run into.
Mostly, phlebitis occurs spontaneously. Risk factors for the development of phlebitis are:
- Prolonged immobility, such as sitting for a long time (for example during a long flight) or lying (for example due to bedriddenness or hospitalization).
- Surgery and the presence of an infusion needle.
The signs and symptoms of phlebitis are:
- Redness (a red spot or stripe on the skin).
- Local swelling.
- The spot feels warm.
- Burning sensation.
- Local pain (when touching and while walking).
- Pus in or around the plug hole.
- Depending on the cause of the inflammation, fever may occur.
- Discomfort or the inability to use the affected limb.
- Hard subcutaneous strand or nodule.
- Connective tissue development.
- Development of small, local blood clots.
Phlebitis may occur in the legs, but also in the arms. The disease is very rare in other parts of the body, such as the chest, neck or penis.
To diagnose phlebitis, the patient is examined by the doctor or nurse practitioner. It is considered how the skin looks. A duplex ultrasound examination is sometimes needed to determine the diagnosis definitively.
Treatment of a small phlebitis with relatively few symptoms is usually not necessary. This will disappear spontaneously within days to weeks. If, on the other hand, extensive phlebitis takes place or if phlebitis is accompanied by many symptoms, wearing compression stockings may alleviate the problems. Simple anti-inflammatory painkillers, such as ibuprofen, are usually prescribed.
Phlebitis generally passes on its own and there’s no reason for concern. In rare cases, the condition may, however, get dangerous. For example blood clots (thromboses) may arise, which block the blood vessels and, if they come loose, may lead to heart failure or respiratory failure.
- Walking can hurt in case of phlebitis. Yet it’s important to continue moving, in order to stimulate blood circulation.
- To reduce the symptoms, it may help to cool the affected area with wet cloths or ice packs.
- Put the leg raised up for a long time and let it rest.
- Apply pressure with compression stockings and pressure bandage.
- Eat healthy. A healthy weight puts less load on the blood vessels and stimulates the pumping function of muscles.
- Smoking and alcohol consumption can stimulate phlebitis.