Superficial thrombophlebitis

Author: Vanessa Ngan, Staff Writer, 2013. Minor revision, 22 February 2014.

What is superficial thrombophlebitis?

Superficial thrombophlebitis is an inflammation of a superficial vein, with or without a blood clot, found just under the skin. It most commonly occurs in the veins in the leg but can happen in other veins around the body such as the arms, penis and breasts.

Superficial thrombophlebitis is not usually a serious condition and often settles down and goes away on its own within 2-6 weeks. However, the condition can be recurrent and persistent and cause significant pain and immobility. In addition, complications may occur if the affected veins become infected or the blood clot moves further up the vein to where the superficial and deep veins join; leading to a more serious condition called deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

What causes superficial thrombophlebitis?

The cause of superficial thrombophlebitis is not completely clear but it is believed to be associated with a change in the dynamic balance of haemostasis (stopping of bleeding). In 1846, the German pathologist Virchow showed that damage to a blood vessel wall, abnormal blood flow, or a change in blood constituents causing abnormal blood clotting, could lead to inflammation or formation of blood clots in the veins.

Who gets superficial thrombophlebitis?

Superficial thrombophlebitis can occur spontaneously and without apparent reason. However, there are risk factors that make it more likely for the condition to occur.

What are the signs and symptoms of superficial thrombophlebitis?

Characteristic signs and symptoms include:

How is superficial thrombophlebitis diagnosed?

These visual characteristics are not enough to confirm the diagnosis as many other conditions have similar symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis your doctor will, in addition to a physical examination, take your past medical history and discuss any recent lifestyle changes, for example recent long distance flying or change in job to one that is predominantly standing.

If the condition is recurring often or there is the possibility of complications, your doctor may perform other tests, such as blood tests, ultrasound scan and radiographic imaging.

What is the treatment for superficial thrombophlebitis?

Mild cases of superficial thrombophlebitis may not need any treatment. Usually symptoms will resolve within 3-4 weeks. You should try to keep up with normal routines and remain active.

In more severe cases the following treatments may be used.

Related information

Email Newsletter

Would you like to receive our dermatology updates by email?


Submit your images

We're seeking high-quality photos of skin diseases.  


Machine diagnosis

Watch DermNet's proposal to create a 'Skin Disease Image Recognition Tool' - winner of the 2017 'Clinicians' Challenge Active Award' by the NZ Ministry of Health and HiNZ.

Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
DermNet NZ Newsletter