Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that can cause the skin to become painful and discolored. If left untreated, the infection can spread to other parts of the body and cause serious complications.

In fact, there are over 14 million cases of cellulitis in the United States each year. The infection can occur anywhere on the body and can lead to serious complications if it goes untreated.

In this article, we discuss the causes, treatments, and symptoms of cellulitis. Read on to learn more.

Cellulitis is an often painful skin infection. It may first appear as a discolored, swollen area that feels hot and tender to the touch. The discoloration and swelling can spread quickly.

On lighter skin tones, cellulitis will typically appear red or pink. On darker skin tones, it may appear dark brown, gray, or purple.

It most often affects the feet and lower legs, although the infection can occur anywhere on a person’s body or face.

Cellulitis affects the skin and the tissues underneath. The infection can spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream.

If you don’t treat cellulitis, it could become life threatening. Get medical help right away if you have symptoms.

Cellulitis occurs when certain types of bacteria enter the skin through a break in its surface. Staphylococcus and Streptococcus (strep) bacteria commonly cause cellulitis.

Cellulitis can start in skin injuries, such as:

  • cuts
  • bug bites
  • surgical wounds

Several factors increase your risk of cellulitis.

For example, you’re more likely to develop cellulitis if you have a skin condition like eczema or athlete’s foot. This is because bacteria can enter your skin through cracks caused by these conditions.

A weakened immune system also increases your risk of developing cellulitis because it can’t provide as much protection against the infection.

Other risk factors include having:

Cellulitis symptoms include:

  • pain and tenderness in the affected area
  • redness or inflammation of your skin
  • a skin sore or rash that grows quickly
  • tight, glossy, swollen skin
  • a feeling of warmth in the affected area
  • an abscess with pus
  • fever

More serious cellulitis symptoms include:

Cellulitis can spread into other parts of your body if left untreated. If it does spread, you may develop some of the following symptoms:

Contact your doctor right away if you have symptoms of cellulitis.

Cellulitis can have a different appearance based on the severity and where it occurs. Here are some images of cellulitis.

Cellulitis usually doesn’t spread from person to person. It is possible to catch a bacterial skin infection if you have an open cut on your skin and it touches skin that has an active infection.

If you do develop cellulitis from a transmitted infection, it could be dangerous if you don’t treat it in a timely manner. This is why it’s important to tell your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of cellulitis.

Complications of cellulitis can be severe if left untreated. Some complications can include:

  • severe tissue damage (gangrene)
  • amputation
  • damage to internal organs that become infected
  • septic shock
  • death

Your doctor will likely be able to diagnose cellulitis just by looking at your skin. A physical exam might reveal:

  • swelling of the skin
  • redness and warmth of the affected area
  • 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 the discoloration and swelling spread. In some cases, your doctor may take blood or a sample of the wound to test for bacteria.

If you need help finding a primary care doctor, then check out our FindCare tool here.

Cellulitis treatment typically involves taking antibiotics by mouth for a minimum of 5 days. Your doctor may also prescribe pain relievers. However, in some cases, doctors will administer intravenous (IV) antibiotics as soon as they diagnose symptoms.

You should rest until your symptoms improve. Raising the affected limb higher than your heart can also help reduce swelling.

Cellulitis should go away within 7 to 10 days after you start taking antibiotics. You might need longer treatment if your infection is more severe.

Even if your symptoms improve within a few days, it is critical to take all the antibiotics your doctor prescribes.

When to contact a doctor

Contact your doctor if you:

  • don’t feel better within 3 days after starting antibiotics
  • notice your symptoms get worse
  • develop a fever

You may need to be treated with IV antibiotics in a hospital if you have:

  • a high temperature
  • low blood pressure
  • an infection that doesn’t improve with oral antibiotics
  • a weakened immune system due to other diseases

Surgery options

In most cases, a course of antibiotics will clear up the infection. However, if you have an abscess, a medical professional may need to drain it.

For surgery to drain the abscess, you first get medication to numb the area. Then, the surgeon makes a small cut in the abscess and allows the pus to drain out.

The surgeon then covers the wound with a dressing so it can heal. You may have a small scar afterward.

Home remedies

You should always see your doctor first if you have symptoms of cellulitis. Without treatment, it can spread and cause a life threatening infection.

However, there are things you can do at home to relieve pain and other symptoms. For a start, you can clean your skin in the area where you have cellulitis. Ask your doctor how to properly clean and cover your wound.

For example, if your leg is affected, raise it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling and relieve pain.

Here’s how to take care of your skin at home while you recover from cellulitis.

Your symptoms may worsen for the first 48 hours. However, they should begin to improve 2 to 3 days after you start taking antibiotics.

You should always finish any course of antibiotics your doctor prescribes.

During your recovery, keep the wound clean. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for washing and covering the affected area of the skin.

If you have a break in your skin, clean it right away and apply antibiotic ointment. Cover your wound with ointment and a bandage until it’s fully healed. Change the bandage daily.

Watch your wounds for discoloration, drainage, or pain. These could be signs of an infection.

Take these precautions if you have poor circulation or a condition that increases your risk of cellulitis:

  • Keep your skin moist to prevent cracking.
  • Promptly treat conditions that cause cracks in the skin, like athlete’s foot.
  • Wear protective equipment when you work or play sports.
  • Inspect your feet daily for signs of injury or infection.

Many conditions can present symptoms similar to cellulitis.

Cellulitis vs. venous stasis

Venous stasis, or venous stasis dermatitis, is a condition commonly misdiagnosed as cellulitis.

According to the National Eczema Association, venous stasis causes swelling and discoloration, and it can develop into skin ulcers. It is the result of poor circulation in the lower limbs and typically affects the lower legs and ankles.

Unlike cellulitis, this condition can affect both sides of the body and is not the result of bacterial infection. However, your risk of a skin infection will increase if you develop sores or ulcers as a result of venous stasis.

Cellulitis vs. erysipelas

Erysipelas is another skin infection. Like cellulitis, it can start from open wounds, burns, or surgical cuts.

Most of the time, the infection is on the legs. Less often, it can appear on the face, arms, or trunk (torso).

However, cellulitis affects deeper tissue, while erysipelas is often the result of strep bacteria, and its effects are more superficial.

Other symptoms of erysipelas include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • nausea
  • chills
  • weakness
  • ill feeling

Doctors treat erysipelas with antibiotics, most often penicillin or a similar drug.

Cellulitis vs. abscess

An abscess is a swollen pocket of pus underneath the skin. It forms when bacteria — often Staphylococcus — get into your body through a cut or other open wound.

When this happens, your immune system sends in white blood cells to fight off the bacteria. The attack can form a hole under your skin, which fills with pus. The pus contains dead tissue, bacteria, and white blood cells.

Unlike cellulitis, an abscess looks like a lump under the skin. You may also have symptoms like a fever and chills.

Some abscesses shrink on their own without treatment. In other instances, you may require antibiotics. In general, abscesses need to open and drain in order to improve.

Cellulitis vs. dermatitis

Dermatitis is a general term for a skin rash, and it covers many conditions. These include:

Unlike cellulitis, most forms of dermatitis are not due to bacterial infections.

Learn more about the types of dermatitis here.

General dermatitis symptoms include:

  • discolored skin
  • blisters that ooze or crust
  • itching
  • swelling
  • scaling

Doctors treat dermatitis with cortisone creams and antihistamines to relieve the swelling and itching. You will also need to avoid the substance that caused the reaction.

Cellulitis vs. DVT

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is a blood clot in one of the deep veins, usually in the legs. You can get a DVT after you sit or lie in bed for a long period of time, such as on a long plane trip or after surgery.

Symptoms of DVT include:

  • pain in the leg
  • redness
  • warmth

It’s important to get medical help if you have DVT. If the clot breaks free and travels to the lungs, it can cause a life threatening condition called pulmonary embolism (PE).

Doctors treat DVT with blood thinners. These prevent the clot from getting bigger and stop you from getting new clots.

Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that causes inflammation, skin discoloration, and pain. Complications are uncommon but can be severe. You should always contact your doctor if you develop symptoms of cellulitis.

Most people fully recover from cellulitis after 7 to 10 days on antibiotics. If left untreated, cellulitis can lead to gangrene or septic shock and may require surgery in severe cases.

It is possible to get cellulitis again in the future. You can help prevent this infection by keeping your skin clean if you get a cut or other open wound. Ask your doctor if you’re unsure how to properly care for your skin after an injury.