Cellulitis

Written by Bree Normandin | Published on August 15, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection. Cellulitis may first appear as a red, swollen area that feels hot and tender to the touch. The redness and swelling often spread rapidly. Cellulitis is usually painful.

In most cases, the skin on the lower legs is affected, although the infection can occur anywhere on your body or face. Cellulitis usually affects the surface of your skin, but it may also affect the underlying tissues of your skin. Cellulitis can also spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream.

If cellulitis is not treated, the infection might spread and become life-threatening. If you experience symptoms of cellulitis, it’s important to seek medical attention right away.

Cellulitis Causes and Risk Factors

Cellulitis occurs when certain types of bacteria enter through a cut or crack in the skin. Cellulitis is commonly caused by staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria.

In 50 to 60 percent of cases, skin injuries such as cuts, insect bites, or surgical incisions are the cause of the infection. Certain factors also increase risk for developing cellulitis.

Common risk factors include:

  • weakened immune system
  • skin conditions that cause breaks in the skin, such as eczema and athlete’s foot
  • intravenous drug use
  • history of cellulitis

Symptoms of Cellulitis

Cellulitis symptoms may include:

  • pain and tenderness in the affected area
  • redness or inflammation on your skin
  • skin sore or rash that appears and grows quickly
  • tight, glossy, swollen appearance of the skin
  • a feeling of warmth in the affected area
  • fever

Some common signs of a more serious cellulitis infection are:

  • shaking or chills
  • feeling of illness
  • fatigue
  • muscle aches
  • warm skin
  • sweating

Symptoms such as drowsiness, lethargy, blistering, and red streaks could signal that cellulitis is spreading. If any of these symptoms occur, you should contact your doctor immediately.

Diagnosing Cellulitis

Your doctor can usually diagnose cellulitis on sight, but will perform a physical exam to determine the extent of your condition. This exam might reveal:

  • swelling of the skin
  • redness and warmth of the affected area
  • drainage (if there is an infection)
  • swollen glands

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may want to monitor the affected area for a few days to see if redness or swelling spread. In some cases, your doctor may perform a blood test or a culture of the wound to test for the presence of bacteria.

Treating Cellulitis

Your doctor will usually prescribe a two-week regimen of oral antibiotics to treat cellulitis. Even if symptoms improve within a few days, it’s important to take all of the medication prescribed to ensure proper treatment. While taking antibiotics, monitor your condition to see if symptoms improve. In most cases, symptoms will improve or disappear within a few days. In some cases, pain relievers are prescribed. You should rest until your symptoms improve. While you rest, you should raise the affected limb higher than your heart to reduce any swelling.

If you don’t respond to treatment within three days after beginning a round of antibiotics, if your symptoms get worse, or if you develop a fever, contact your doctor immediately.

Cellulitis should go away within seven to 10 days of starting antibiotics. Longer treatment could be necessary if your infection is severe. This can occur if you suffer from a chronic disease or if your immune system is not working properly. People with certain pre-existing medical conditions and risk factors may need to stay in the hospital for observation during treatment. Your doctor may advise hospitalization if you:

  • have high temperature
  • have high blood pressure
  • have an infection that does not improve with antibiotics
  • have a compromised immune system due to other diseases
  • require intravenous antibiotics when oral antibiotics do not work

Possible Cellulitis Complications

Sometimes cellulitis can spread throughout the body, entering the lymph nodes and bloodstream. In rare cases, it can enter into deeper layers of tissue. Potential complications that can occur are:

  • blood infection
  • bone infection
  • inflammation of your lymph vessels
  • tissue death (gangrene)

Preventing Cellulitis

If you have a break in your skin, clean it immediately and apply antibiotic ointment on a regular basis. Cover your wound with a bandage and change it daily, until a scab forms. Watch your wounds for redness, drainage, or pain. These signs could indicate an infection. People with poor circulation or who have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk for cellulitis should take extra precautions, including:

  • keeping skin moist to prevent cracking
  • promptly treating superficial skin infections, such as athlete’s foot
  • wearing protective equipment when working or playing
  • inspecting feet daily for signs of injury or infection
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