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Phlebitis: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment

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What Is Phlebitis?

Phleb comes from the Greek word for “vein” and itis refers to inflammation. Therefore, phlebitis simply means “vein inflammation”. Veins run through the entire body, carrying blood away from limbs and organs back to the heart where the blood can pick up more oxygen. When inflamed, a vein can become tender, red, swollen and/or hard (x).

Phlebitis can range in severity from mild to life-threatening. It can be superficial, meaning it affects veins close to the skin, or occur in veins located deeper within the body.

The causes of phlebitis vary widely as well. For example, it can arise as a result of a thrombus, or blood clot. In other cases, damage to the vein, reactions to medications, or infections that occur as a result of receiving intravenous injections leads to venous inflammation.

Superficial thrombophlebitis is a type of phlebitis that describes inflammation stemming from a blood clot near the skin. It can be painful but isn’t usually serious (x). On the other hand, a type of phlebitis called deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can be serious and often requires treatment to prevent life-threatening complications like a pulmonary embolism (x).

Symptoms of Phlebitis

Phlebitis generally occurs in peripheral areas of the body such as arms and legs. Symptoms around the site of the inflamed vein include (x, x):

  • Pain
  • Redness
  • Hard lumps or cords under the skin
  • Swelling
  • Warmth around the area

Phlebitis that occurs on surface veins are easy to identify. This isn’t always the case with deep vein thrombosis, however. DVT can go unnoticed until something more serious happens and the blood clot travels to the lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism (PE). The following signs may indicate a PE and require immediate medical attention (x):

  • Trouble breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Lightheadedness

Causes of Phlebitis

Intravenous Catheterization

Phlebitis can develop as a result of an injection into a peripheral vein. This is significant because inserting a small tube into a vein in order to administer fluids, medication or to draw blood is the most common invasive procedure done in hospitals. It’s called peripheral IV catheterization (PIC) (x).

PIC can cause phlebitis for a few different reasons (x). One is through inserting the catheter incorrectly or using a catheter that is the wrong size for the vein. This can damage the vein and cause inflammation. Keeping a catheter in too long can also cause phlebitis.

Phlebitis can also occur if a person has a bad reaction to the medication or fluid being administered or if the fluid’s pH is too low.

Finally, piercing the skin and vein poses the risk of a bacterial infection, which can cause a particularly dangerous form of phlebitis that may lead to sepsis (blood infection) if not treated properly.

Medical facilities make every effort to avoid phlebitis from PIC and try not to let it occur in more than 5 percent of cases. However, it’s hard to tell how often it occurs and estimates range from 2 to 62 percent (x).

Varicose Veins

When venous walls become weak and/or damaged, such as during old age, pregnancy or obesity, the veins can become swollen, enlarged and even painful. We mostly recognize the varicose veins that develop in the legs, but they can also be found on the rectum, testicles, esophagus, liver and stomach. Those on the legs are the ones susceptible to phlebitis, though (x). It’s been debated whether or not varicose veins increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis, but most studies don’t show a link (x).

A Prior History of Phlebitis

People who have dealt with superficial phlebitis or DVT are more likely to develop the condition again (x).

Irregularities in Blood Clotting Factors

Blood clots can cause superficial thrombophlebitis and the more serious deep vein thrombosis. Having blood that clots easily make these more likely to occur. Several factors cause blood to clot more easily such as (x):

  • Smoking
  • Use of hormone replacement therapy or birth control pills
  • Pregnancy
  • A medical condition called thrombophilia that makes blood clot faster than usual (x)
  • Obesity
  • Some types of cancer
Causes of Phlebitis

Treatment for Phlebitis

How phlebitis gets treated depends on the type and severity.

Simple cases of phlebitis may require no treatment. Cold compresses, topical anti-inflammatory creams and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen can help reduce the discomfort of pain and swelling (x).

If phlebitis is caused by bacteria which is a possibility when receiving intravenous injections, antibiotics would likely be prescribed to avoid sepsis and other serious conditions (x).

When experiencing discomfort of phlebitis related to varicose veins in the legs, people are often advised to elevate their legs when seated, move around a bit more to keep blood moving, and/or using compression stockings to support the veins. However, sometimes surgery is required to remove particularly weak areas of the affected vein(s) (x).

Deep vein thrombosis requires more attention, however. Elevating the affected leg and wearing compression stockings, along with “watchful waiting” could be enough. However, anticoagulant drugs (medications that reduce blood clotting) and surgery are often indicated with more serious clots (x).

Finally, lifestyle plays a role as well. Since obesity increases the risk, maintaining a healthy weight and staying active can help prevent some of the risk factors associated with phlebitis.

Supplements for Phlebitis

If phlebitis concerns you, there are a few ways supplements can help. Some, like turmeric and garlic, have blood-thinning effects. Others, like horse chestnut, can keep the lining of veins strong and prevent swelling. Since some supplements can cause excess bleeding during surgery or interact with other blood thinners, it’s important to consult with your doctor first.

Turmeric Extract

Turmeric is a root similar to ginger. Its active ingredient, curcumin, possesses anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These properties alone help keep veins healthy but curcumin also acts as an anticoagulant, which means it can help prevent blood clots (x). As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg of turmeric root extract daily, or as directed by physician.

Garlic Extract

Garlic is a perennial plant that is known for its sharp taste and distinct aroma. Studies show that healthy consumption of garlic improves well-being and general health (x). And like turmeric, it also decreases levels of certain proteins in the blood that contribute to clotting (x). As a dietary supplement, take 650 mg of garlic extract twice daily with meals, or as directed by physician. Be sure to make your discuss with your doctor before surgery.

Horse Chestnut

Studies show that taking horse chestnut can be an effective way to naturally combat a condition called chronic venous insufficiency (CVI) (x). CVI has the potential to cause risk factors related to phlebitis including varicose veins and injury to the vein lining (x). Therefore, horse chestnut extract can be a useful tool in your arsenal if you’re dealing with inflammation, swelling or discomfort in the legs due to weakened veins. As a dietary supplement, take 300 mg twice daily, or as directed by physician. Raw horse chestnut is poisonous and should never be consumed raw.

Grape Seed Extract

Not only does grape seed extract help prevent problematic blood clotting, some research shows it helps reduce swelling in the legs caused by poor venous function (x, x). Strong veins and blood that flows efficiently reduces the chances of phlebitis. Take 50 mg to 200 mg daily, or every other day, or as directed by physician.

Feverfew Extract

Feverfew is a plant that originated from Asia but can now be found throughout the world. Known to be a naturally occurring stimulant, it contains parthenolides, which assists in the widening of the blood vessels that can provide relief of headaches, migraines and fevers. In addition to that, feverfew may help prevent blood clots and reduce pain and inflammation (x). The recommended dose for feverfew extract is 500 mg to be taken once daily with water or as directed by your medical doctor.

Green Tea Extract

Green tea is rich in polyphenols, plant compounds that operate as antioxidants and neutralize free radicals. Because of this, green tea is well known for overall health-promoting effects ranging from improved skin to cancer prevention (x). It can also help fend off phlebitis by improving the function of veins and protecting them from oxidative damage (x). As a dietary supplement, green tea extract is recommended to be taken in servings of 500 mg and consumed either once or twice a day.

The Bottom Line

Phlebitis varies in its presentation. Sometimes, like when a person has blood drawn or receives IV fluids through a catheter, a mild case may occur as a result with no consequence. On the other hand, deep vein thrombosis is a potentially deadly form of the condition.

To detect phlebitis, be on the lookout for redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and/or hard bumps under the skin. Unfortunately, the most dangerous type of phlebitis is the hardest to detect because it occurs deep within the body, usually the leg. Should you ever have trouble breathing, changes in heart rate, lightheadedness and any other signs of a pulmonary embolism, seek medical help immediately.

Doctors sometimes prescribe medication to ensure that blood doesn’t clot in the veins. Surgery may also be needed. In general, staying active and maintaining a healthy weight can keep veins strong and inflammation to a minimum. Finally, plants like turmeric, garlic, feverfew, horse chestnut, and green tea can support blood flow and the proper functioning of veins. Some, like garlic, can easily be built into your diet. Others may be more convenient in the form of supplements. Either way, check with your doctor if you have any questions or if you plan to have surgery in the near future.

About the author

Jessica Moon


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