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Superficial thrombophlebitis

Definition

Superficial thrombophlebitis is inflammation of a vein located just below the skin’s surface. The inflammation is due to a blood clot.

Alternative Names

Thrombophlebitis - superficial

Causes

This condition may occur after injury to the vein. Or it may occur after having an intravenous (IV) line or catheter. If you have a high risk of this condition, you may develop it for no apparent reason.

Risks of superficial thrombophlebitis include:

  • Chemical irritation of the area
  • Disorders that involve increased blood clotting
  • Infection
  • Pregnancy
  • Sitting or staying still for a prolonged period
  • Use of birth control pills
  • Varicose veins

Superficial thrombophlebitis may be associated with:

Other rare disorders associated this condition include antithrombin III (AT-III), protein C and protein S deficiencies.

Symptoms

Symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Skin redness, inflammation, tenderness, or pain along a vein just below the skin
  • Warmth of the area
  • Limb pain
  • Hardening of the vein

Exams and Tests

Your health care provider will diagnose superficial thrombophlebitis based mainly on the appearance of the affected area. Frequent checks of the pulse, blood pressure, temperature, skin condition, and blood flow may be needed.

Duplex ultrasound helps confirm the condition.

If there are signs of an infection, skin or blood cultures may be done.

Treatment

The goals of treatment are to reduce pain and inflammation and prevent complications.

To reduce discomfort and swelling, your health care provider may recommend that you:

  • Wear support stockings, if your leg is affected
  • Keep the affected leg or arm raised above heart level
  • Apply a warm compress to the area

If you have a catheter or IV line, it will likely be removed if it is the cause of the thrombophlebitis.

Medicines that may be prescribed include:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to reduce inflammation
  • Painkillers

If deeper clots (deep vein thrombosis) are also present, your provider may prescribe medicines to thin your blood. These medicines are called anticoagulants. Antibiotics are prescribed if you have an infection.

Surgical removal (phlebectomy), stripping, or sclerotherapy of the affected vein are occasionally needed to treat large varicose veins or to prevent further episodes of thrombophlebitis in high-risk patients.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Superficial thrombophlebitis is usually a short-term condition that does not cause complications. Symptoms often go away in 1 to 2 weeks. Hardness of the vein may remain for much longer.

Possible Complications

Complications of superficial thrombophlebitis are rare. Possible problems may include the following:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call for an appointment with your doctor if you develop symptoms of this condition.

Also call if you already have the condition and your symptoms worsen or do not get better with treatment.

Prevention

If you need to have an IV, the risk of superficial thrombophlebitis may be reduced by regularly changing the location of the IV and by immediate removal of the IV line if signs of inflammation develop.

Whenever possible, avoid keeping your legs and arm still for long periods. Move your legs often or take a stroll during long plane trips, car trips, and other situations in which you are sitting or lying down for long periods. Walking and staying active as soon as possible after surgery or during a long-term medical illness can also reduce your risk of thrombophlebitis.

References

Brown KR, Rossi PJ. Superficial venous disease. Surg Clin N Am. 2012;93:963-982.

James WD, Berger TG, Elston DM. Andrews' Diseases of the Skin: Clinical Dermatology. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 35.


Review Date: 5/27/2014
Reviewed By: Deepak Sudheendra, MD, Assistant Professor of Interventional Radiology & Surgery, Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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