Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection that develops in the layers of skin. It can cause painful, hot to the touch, and red swelling on your body. It’s most common on the lower legs, but it can develop anywhere.
Cellulitis is most commonly caused by one of two types of bacteria: Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. Both are treated with antibiotics, and the treatment is typically very successful.
However, from time to time, cellulitis can worsen. It can quickly spread if it’s not treated. It may not respond to the antibiotics either. This can lead to a medical emergency, and without prompt attention, cellulitis can become life threatening.
Recognizing the symptoms of cellulitis is important. If you realize the infection is occurring soon enough, you can get treatment before side effects or complications have a chance to occur.
A small cut, scratch, or even a bug bite is all that’s needed for bacteria to break through and cause an infection.
The most common symptoms of cellulitis include:
- swelling or red, inflamed areas of skin
- pain and tenderness
- tight, glossy skin over infected area
- feeling of warmth
- abscess or pus-filled pocket
Some symptoms may indicate you’re experiencing side effects or complications of cellulitis. These problematic symptoms include:
- muscle aches
- blackened skin near infection site
- red streaks extending out from the main rash
These complications or side effects of a cellulitis infection are the most common. They can occur in people who don’t seek treatment, and they may also occur when treatment isn’t effective.
Some of these complications are medical emergencies, and you should seek immediate attention if you show symptoms.
Septicemia occurs when the infection spreads to the bloodstream. In cases where septicemia isn’t fatal, amputation may be needed, and chronic pain and fatigue may remain.
Septicemia can be fatal. Call 911 and go to the nearest emergency if you have cellulitis and experience:
- rapid heart rate
- fast-paced breathing
A cellulitis treatment that is not properly treated may return. It may also make complications or side effects more likely in the future.
The body’s lymph system is responsible for draining waste products, toxins, and immune cells out of the body. Sometimes, however, the lymph system can become blocked. This will lead to swelling and inflammation, a condition known as lymphedema. Treatment will help reduce symptoms but not fully eliminate them.
An abscess is a pocket of pus, or infected fluid, that develops under the skin or between layers of skin. It may develop at or near the injury, cut, or bite. Surgery will be necessary to open the abscess and properly drain it.
Gangrene is another name for tissue death. When blood supply is cut off to tissue, it can die. This is more common on extremities, like the lower legs. If gangrene is not properly treated, it can spread and become a medical emergency. An amputation may be required. It can even be fatal.
Also known as a flesh-eating disease, necrotizing fasciitis is an infection in the deepest layer of skin. It can spread to your fascia, or the connective tissue that surrounds your muscles and organs, and cause tissue death. This infection can be fatal, and it is an extreme emergency.
Cellulitis is often caused by Staphylococcus, a type of bacteria. A more serious type of staph bacteria, known as MRSA, can also cause cellulitis. MRSA is resistant to many of the antibiotics that can treat normal staph infections.
Orbital cellulitis is an infection behind the eyes. It develops in the fat and muscle that surrounds the eye, and it can limit your eye movement. It can also cause pain, bulging, and loss of vision. This type of cellulitis is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention.
Perianal streptococcal cellulitis
Perianal streptococcal cellulitis is a type of infection that most commonly occurs in children with strep throat or a cold. It shows up as a rash around the anus and rectum. Perianal strep is spread when bacteria from the head and throat makes its way to a child’s bottom.
The standard treatment for cellulitis is antibiotics. Injections, pills, or topical antibiotics may be used to help end the infection and prevent complications.
Rest can go a long way to helping promote healing, too. Lying with your affected limb raised above your heart may reduce swelling. This will cut down on irritation, itching, and burning.
Most cases of cellulitis will heal in 7 to 10 days with a regular course of antibiotics. Some infections may require longer treatment if the infection is not responding well. People with severe infections or those with a weakened immune system may also need longer or stronger doses of antibiotics.
What if cellulitis is still red after taking antibiotics?
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis should begin to improve 1 to 3 days after you begin taking antibiotics. However, it may take more than 2 weeks for them to clear entirely.
If you see the red area of infection growing or notice streaks from the inflamed spot after you start antibiotics, this may be a sign the infection is spreading. You should see a doctor right away. A stronger course of treatment may be needed to eliminate the infection.
While cellulitis can go away on its own, the likelihood of complications is higher if you don’t get treatment. That’s why you should seek medical help if you see any signs of infection, such as swelling, red rash, or fever.
If you have cellulitis, are on antibiotics, and see symptoms worsening, you should also see a doctor. Cellulitis complications can occur when treatment isn’t effective, and some of these complications can be dangerous, even deadly.
If you do not see improvement in your infection or symptoms persist 3 days after you begin treatment for cellulitis, you should also return to your doctor for a checkup. This could be a sign you need a different treatment plan in order to prevent possible complications.
There are steps you can take to help prevent bacteria from setting up shop in your skin and causing cellulitis.
Accidents may not be avoidable. But taking extra precautions to avoid scrapes and cuts during work or recreation can reduce the opportunity for bacteria to enter the skin.
If you’re going to be outside, wear protective gear or bug-deterring sprays or lotions to prevent bug bites and stings.
Clean and moisturize your skin
Dry, cracked skin is an entry point for problematic bacteria. Hands and feet are especially vulnerable. Conditions like athlete’s foot may make you more susceptible. Moisturizing your skin can help you protect yourself. Wash your hands regularly to avoid spreading bacteria, too.
Treat wounds immediately
Wash any cuts, scrapes, bug bites, or stings with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment over the area, and cover with a bandage to guard against bacteria. Change the bandage daily to keep it clean and prevent an infection.
Manage underlying medical conditions
People with conditions like diabetes, cancer, and vascular disease may have a weakened immune system. This can make you more susceptible to infection.
If you manage those conditions, you may be more capable of handling secondary issues, such as cellulitis, when they occur.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection in the skin. It’s often easily treated with a course of antibiotics.
However, if the infection is not treated or the medicine is not effective, complications or side effects are likely to crop up. These complications can be severe. Some may even be life threatening or fatal.
It’s important to see a doctor soon if you think you have cellulitis. Treatment should begin right away to avoid possible complications.
If you think the treatment isn’t working or you see new symptoms, tell your doctor. This could be an indication that you’re developing a more severe infection.
New treatments may be necessary to fully eliminate the infection. Once the cellulitis is handled properly, the infection rarely causes any long-term or lasting problems.