What is phlebitis? How should it be treated?

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Guest post by Benjamin Lee

Imagine a whitewater river. It might be fast or slow moving, but no matter the speed of the river, the water travels smoothly because it’s all flowing in one direction. Now imagine a place in the river where it starts to bend. It’s at this juncture that the water becomes turbulent because liquid can’t change direction smoothly. The swirling reverse-current that is created is known as an eddy.

What does this have to do with veins? When the blood is flowing up the leg in a deep vein, and then – due to venous reflux – it turns and starts going back down toward the feet in a superficial vein, “eddies” are created at the intersection of the deep vein and the superficial vein. Phlebitis almost always starts at a juncture where there’s turbulence.

Phlebitis describes when a vein in the superficial vein system becomes inflamed and swollen. (It is also referred to as superficial phlebitis.) Spontaneous phlebitis happens when there is a sudden onset of vein inflammation.

If phlebitis occurs and is not treated in its early stages, thrombophlebitis, or the formation of a blood clot associated with phlebitis, can develop. Think back to the whitewater river analogy: At the critical junctions where there is lots of turbulence, the blood in the center of the “eddy” is staying still – and any time blood stays still, there is a risk of clotting.

Source: © hriana/Adobe Stock

The right diagnosis and treatment

Anyone with venous dysfunction can get phlebitis or thrombophlebitis, and both are very common, but historically, the medical community has received little training about these conditions and how to treat them. Some physicians underestimate how much a patient with thrombophlebitis can suffer, even though the pain can be incapacitating.

“I’ve seen patients with veins that are rock hard but feel extremely tender; some have had to stay home from work it hurts so badly,” says phlebologist (vein specialist) Dr. Cindy Asbjornsen.

She emphasizes that although untreated phlebitis can present very dramatically, early and aggressive care can “nip it in the bud.” While many physicians have been trained to treat phlebitis with antibiotics or anti-coagulation, the proper treatment for phlebitis is to apply heat (NEVER ice) to the area, elevate the legs, and take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicine.

Before ultrasound, all phlebitis was treated as septic phlebitis (caused by bacteria in the venous system) and the treatment was a course of antibiotics. Dr. Asbjornsen only prescribes antibiotics if someone has a fever that is 100-degrees or higher (an indication that it the phlebitis might be septic in origin).

The only time that anticoagulation is appropriate is when the thrombophlebitis is within at least two centimeters from the saphenofemoral junction (where the great saphenous vein in the superficial vein system enters the deep vein system).

What about DVT?

To review, phlebitis (also known as superficial phlebitis) is the inflammation of a vein, usually in the leg. Symptoms include redness, swelling, tenderness, and pain in or along a vein. Thrombophlebitis is a blood clot in the superficial vein system.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot that forms in the deep vein system. Superficial phlebitis should not be mistaken for a DVT because with phlebitis, you can almost always see the vein that is involved. Phlebitis often presents like a big, red streak and always comes with symptoms, whereas DVT sometimes presents no symptoms. If phlebitis is located on the high thigh, however, the patient should get an ultrasound to make sure that the deep vein system is not involved

It’s important to note that it is possible for a blood clot in the superficial vein system to grow into the deep vein system. A 2006 study in the Journal of Family Practice looked at whether thrombophlebitis (what they called spontaneous superficial venous thrombophlebitis or SVTP) increased the risk of developing thromboembolism.

Researchers found that the condition confers a 10-fold risk of developing DVT within six months compared with controls – but that absolute risk of DVT following SVTP is just 2.7%, and “watchful waiting is probably a reasonable approach in primary care.”

Additionally, the study found that swelling of a leg within six months after a superficial thrombophlebitis should prompt diagnostic testing for DVT.

Preventing phlebitis

Dr. Asbjornsen advises that “all the things that prevent DVT” also keep phlebitis at bay, including evaluation by a board certified phlebologist if venous disease symptoms are present in the legs: spider veins, varicose veins, heaviness, achiness, and/or discoloration or changes of the skin.

Also, stay adequately hydrated and stay active to promote circulation. Avoid prolonged periods of inactivity (such as after surgery or long stretches of sitting). Last, but not least, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet, and don’t smoke.

Some doctors recommend an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the DASH diet (dietary approaches to stop hypertension). Supplements such as fish oil, horse chestnut seed extract, ginger, and turmeric are natural anti-inflammatory agents.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.