What is Phlebitis?
Phlebitis, a serious venous inflammation, is caused when the blood vessel walls are damaged. This damage can be caused by injury, trauma or infection to your veins. Unlike varicose veins, which occur in your legs, phlebitis can occur in your arms also. The condition can cause pain and irritation, as it prevents proper circulation.
Varicose veins and phlebitis may appear similar, but the latter can cause serious complications that risk your health. Fortunately, it can be treated if detected early. Phlebitis can be superficial, meaning it affects the veins in the surface of your skin, or it can develop in your deep veins, which is known as deep vein thrombophlebitis, or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
Superficial phlebitis is rarely serious, and will often resolve quickly, unlike deep vein thrombosis. If you have DVT, large blood clots can form and potentially travel to your lungs, resulting in a life-threatening condition known as pulmonary embolism.
What Causes Phlebitis?
Superficial phlebitis is often caused by a complication of a medical or surgical procedure, which has injured the vein. Deep vein thrombophlebitis can be caused by a number of hereditary, medical or lifestyle factors. For example, if you are pregnant, have just given birth, use birth control or hormone replacement therapy, your chances of phlebitis are increased. Other factors, such as age and previous medical history, can contribute to its development also. Prolonged periods of inactivity will increase your risk, whether it is because of long-haul travel, or an inactive lifestyle. If you have large varicose veins your risk of developing phlebitis is higher in particular after long distance flights.
How is it Diagnosed?
Phlebitis can be detected from a blood test or an ultrasound, that assess blood flow and blockage. The blood test, known as a D-dimer, measures a substance that is released when a blood clot deteriorates. If during the test this substance is not detected, it is unlikely a blood clot has developed. During an ultrasound, clots and blockages can be seen, as the probe is pressed against your skin. The scan will also assess if the clot has extended to the deep system of veins.
A venogram can also be used to identify blood clots, in smaller veins. However, it is more invasive than a D-dimer or ultrasound, as it involves injecting a specific dye into your veins, that appears during an x-ray.
What are the Risks and Symptoms?
If you have phlebitis, your leg or arm will likely become tender, with redness appearing over the affected area. It may also feel hot to the touch and increasingly itchy, and begin to throb or burn. Symptoms of burning, itching and swelling will tend to be worse in the lower legs, as it is furthest from your heart and harder for the blood to circulate. Severe cases of phlebitis can result in chest pain and a fever. If phlebitis goes undetected, skin discolouration and ulcers can occur.
Varicose veins can also develop due to phlebitis. The symptoms are similar, with swelling, itching and aching to be expected. Although not life-threatening, varicose veins can cause your veins to twist and protrude against the skin, and can be generally uncomfortable.
If you are experiencing swelling, tenderness, itching or a burning sensation, be sure to contact a medical professional to assess your risk of phlebitis, or other underlying health issues.
How is Phlebitis Treated?
Treatment for phlebitis can be simply and high effective, as it involves elevation, regular activity, compression and anti-inflammatory medication. Only in severe cases will antibiotics or blood thinners be required, where phlebitis was caused due to infection or blood clots have developed in deeper veins. If you have varicose veins and develop multiple episodes of phlebitis your doctor may recommend vein treatment.
Although treating phlebitis is relatively easy, you should always consult a doctor or specialist, to determine the severity of your condition, and assess associated conditions.