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Lymphangitis is an infection of the lymphatic vessels, an important component of the immune system's filtration process, that is caused by a bacterial infection. If left untreated, lymphangitis can spread quickly throughout the bloodstream and is potentially fatal.
Lymphangitis is identified by painful, red streaks that appear beneath the surface of the skin. These streaks typically run from the site of the original infection to the groin or armpit area. The entire area may become swollen, and blistering may also occur. The sufferer may also experience fever, muscle aches, chills, headache, and loss of appetite.
The bacteria that cause the infection can enter the body in a variety of ways. Common entry methods include scratches, cuts, surgical wounds, insect bites, and any other type of skin wound. When the bacteria successfully enter the lymphatic system, they multiply and move throughout the system.
The most common bacteria to cause lymphangitis is Streptococcus pyogenes, which is also the bacteria that causes strep throat. It also causes infections of the spinal cord, heart, and lungs. Because of its ability to lead to infection, this bacteria is also sometimes referred to as “flesh–eating bacterium.” Staphylococci bacteria may also cause the condition.
As the bacteria move through the lymphatic system, they cause the vessels to become inflamed. This inflammation causes the red streaks that are characteristic of lymphangitis. Since the bacteria grow so quickly, the immune system is unable to respond quickly enough to prevent the infection from forming.
If not treated, the bacterial infection can ultimately destroy the tissue in the area where the infection occurred. This causes an abscess, which is a painful lump filled with pus, to form. The lower skin layers may also become infected, which is how the infection enters the bloodstream.
Certain individuals are more at risk for developing lymphangitis than others. Women who have had a mastectomy, which involves removing a breast and lymph nodes, are more prone to developing the disease. Individuals who have had a leg vein removed in order to perform a coronary bypass surgery are also at a greater risk.