As anyone who’s ever spent time with little kids will know, you only have to take your eye off them for a second before they get themselves into all sorts of mischief. As they investigate and explore the world around them, it’s common for kids to get minor cuts, scrapes, and grazes. Most of the time, these cause no problems – but how can you tell when it’s time to go to the doctor? One thing to look out for is tracking lines, which are a clue that an infection is getting worse.
What are tracking lines?
Any wound to the skin, no matter how small, can get infected. Many people will be aware of the common signs of an infection: the skin may feel warm to the touch, it will likely appear red and swollen, and it will be painful.
The thing to look out for is any sign that the infection might be spreading. Tracking lines, or lymphangitis, are red lines on the skin leading from the site of an infection. They indicate that the infection is making its way to the lymphatic system, which is something you really want to avoid.
The tracking lines may be very faint or very clear, and can also be harder to see on deeper skin tones.
You may also see other symptoms alongside the lines, such as fever, headache, and muscle pains.
What types of infections cause tracking lines?
Tracking lines are most often the result of a bacterial infection in a wound, such as Streptococcus or Staphylococcus species. Both these types of bacteria are normally found on the skin and don’t cause an issue until they’re able to get through the skin’s barrier via a cut or other opening.
Animal bites, and cuts or grazes that happen underwater, each come with the risk of different types of bacteria from the environment getting into the wound. There are also certain fungal pathogens that can cause lymphangitis, such as Sporothrix, which is found in soil and on plants like rose bushes.
Some other medical conditions can put you at greater risk of developing lymphangitis. These include diabetes, current chickenpox infection, long-term steroid use, or any disorder or medication that affects the functioning of the immune system.
With any skin wound, the presence of a tracking line should be a red flag that medical attention is needed.
What to do if you see tracking lines
If you notice a tracking line on yourself or your child, it’s important to seek medical attention quickly. If caught early, a course of antibiotics should be enough to clear up the infection.
If you are seeing inflammation around a cut or bite, you can take a pen and draw around the edges. That way, you can more easily monitor whether the redness has started to track beyond the original border, a sign that the infection is getting worse.
If lymphangitis is left untreated, it can progress and cause complications like sepsis, a life-threatening medical emergency.
What is sepsis?
According to the Sepsis Alliance, more than 75,000 children in the US develop severe sepsis each year, of whom 7,000 sadly die from the condition.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) highlight the following symptoms to look out for:
- Fast heart rate
- Fever, shivers, or feeling cold
- Shortness of breath
- Extreme pain
- Clammy or sweaty skin
In children, the skin can also look bluish, mottled, or very pale. They may have convulsions, or be very lethargic and sleepy.
Rapid diagnosis and treatment are essential to avoid complications or death from sepsis. Being aware of signs like tracking lines can help ensure that potentially dangerous infections are caught and treated early before serious illness ever has a chance to develop.
The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.