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Lymphatic Malformations in Children

What is a lymphatic malformation in children?

A lymphatic malformation is a lymphatic vessel that isn't formed correctly. The vessel traps the lymph fluid and causes cysts to form. Your child may have 1 or more of these cysts.

Lymphatic vessels are part of the lymphatic system. This is part of the immune system. It helps fight infection and other disease. It also helps keep the fluid balance in the body. It does this by emptying extra fluid into blood vessels. This system includes: 

  • Lymphocytes. White blood cells that fight infection and disease.

  • Lymph. White blood cells that contain fluid.

  • Lymph vessels. Thin tubes that carry lymph fluid all over the body.

  • Lymph nodes. These are bean-shaped glands. They are found in the armpit, groin, neck, chest, stomach, and other parts of the body.

  • Other organs or body tissues. For example, these are bone marrow, spleen, thymus, and tonsils. Other organs, such as the digestive tract, also contain lymphatic tissue.

Some lymphatic malformations affect nearby tissue. This causes problems and keeps the tissue from working as it should. For example, a malformation in the chest can cause breathing problems. These can be life-threatening.

What causes a lymphatic malformation in children?

A lymphatic malformation is a problem that your child is born with (congenital). This means that the issue happened during pregnancy, when your baby was forming. When the lymphatic vessels formed, they may have become blocked and enlarged. This could cause lymphatic fluid to build up.

Which children are at risk for lymphatic malformation?

This condition is more common in babies of older mothers. Babies with certain chromosome problems also have a higher risk. These can include Down syndrome and Turner syndrome. 

What are the symptoms of a lymphatic malformation in children?

Most of the time, your child’s healthcare provider can spot symptoms at birth. If there aren’t any symptoms at birth, they often start before your baby is 2 years old.

Symptoms can be a bit different for each child. Symptoms depend on the size of the malformation and where it is. They can include:

  • A soft, smooth lump or mass. This is most often on the neck. It can also be on your child’s head, mouth, tongue, eye, chest, stomach, arms, legs, or scrotum and penis.

  • A lump or mass that gets larger quickly. This may be because of bleeding or an infection.

  • Swelling, pain, bleeding, and infection. Signs of infection can include redness, warmth, pain, swelling, and drainage.

  • A malformation in the chest may cause trouble breathing and swallowing.

  • A malformation in the eye may cause trouble seeing.

The symptoms of this condition may look like symptoms of other health problems. Make sure your child sees their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is a lymphatic malformation diagnosed in a child?

A healthcare provider may first see this condition in your baby during an ultrasound in pregnancy.

You may also need an MRI test during pregnancy. An MRI can show a lymphatic malformation. MRIs use large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make pictures.

After birth, your baby’s healthcare provider may diagnose a malformation during an exam. Your baby may also need the following tests:

  • CT scan. A CT scan shows detailed X-ray images of any part of the body. This test will show if other organs are connected to the malformation.

  • MRI. An MRI may also be used after birth. An MRI is more detailed than a CT scan.

How is a lymphatic malformation treated in children?

Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Your baby's healthcare provider may refer your baby to a specialist for treatment. Your baby may need to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT or otolaryngologist) or a surgeon. Your child may also need to see a doctor who specializes in conditions with imaging procedures (interventional radiologist). 

Watching

Your child’s healthcare provider may watch (monitor) the malformation. They will look for signs of infection, bleeding, or increases in size.

Medicines

If your child has an infection, they will need antibiotics.

Surgery

Your child may need surgery to cut out (excise) small and some large cysts. The cysts may be partly or fully removed.

Sclerotherapy

Your child may get shots (injections) into the cysts which can destroy them. Repeat treatments may be needed.

Laser therapy or radiofrequency ablation

This treatment will destroy cysts with a laser or radio waves. These are used on small cysts or cysts on the skin or mouth. Several treatments may be needed or used together with other treatments.

What are possible complications of a lymphatic malformation in a child?

An untreated lymphatic malformation may cause problems. It can quickly grow in size, become infected, or bleed. Even if your child’s malformation is treated, it may come back. 

Other complications depend on the location and size of the malformation. They can include:

  • Large cysts in the neck or chest may get in the way of breathing and swallowing. This can be life-threatening.

  • Bleeding

  • Infection

  • Malformed soft tissue and bone

  • Surgery may harm the nearby tissue or cause bleeding or other problems

  • Sclerotherapy may cause problems depending on the medicine used

How is a lymphatic malformation managed in a child?

If your child has this condition, their healthcare provider may watch the malformation for changes. Your child may need follow-up care after surgery or other treatments. Make sure you go to all appointments.

Your child may need special dental care. They may also need to be careful not to injure the affected area. Talk with your child’s provider about how to manage the condition.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call your child's health care provider if your child has trouble breathing or swallowing. If this happens suddenly, call 911 or go to the emergency room.

You should also call your child’s healthcare provider if the malformation changes in size, bleeds, or looks infected. Signs of infection include redness, warmth, swelling, pain, and drainage.

Key points about lymphatic malformation in children

  • A lymphatic malformation  is a lymphatic vessel that isn't formed correctly. The vessel traps the lymph fluid and causes cysts to form. Your child may have 1 or more of these cysts.

  • This is a condition your child is born with.

  • They are most common in the neck.

  • Most lymphatic malformations are diagnosed at birth. The rest are often found by 2 years old.

  • Treatment may include surgery to remove the lymphatic malformation or other methods to destroy it.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Liora C Adler MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Raymond Kent Turley BSN MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Rita Sather RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2020
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