What is cellulitis?
Cellulitis is a type of bacterial infection that can quickly become serious. It affects your skin, causing inflammation, redness, and pain.
This type of infection occurs when bacteria enters your body through broken skin. It can affect any part of the body, but it’s most common on the lower legs. This is because the lower legs tend to be most susceptible to scrapes and cuts.
Several types of cuts and injuries can allow cellulitis-causing bacteria into the body, including:
- surgical incisions
- puncture wounds
- skin rashes, such as severe eczema
- animal bites
A cellulitis infection can spread to your bloodstream, which can quickly become life-threatening. This is why it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible if you think you might have cellulitis.
You shouldn’t try to treat cellulitis at home, but there are a few things you can do on your own as you recover from a cellulitis infection.
Cellulitis tends to progress quickly, so early identification is key. At first, you might just feel some pain and tenderness.
But over the course of a few hours, you may start to notice:
- skin that’s warm to the touch
- skin dimpling
- growing area of redness
You can monitor the progression of your infection by circling the red area with a pen. This will help you see how much it’s spread within a period of time. If it’s growing, it’s time to head to the doctor. You should also seek immediate treatment if you develop any flu-like symptoms, including a fever or chills.
Treating cellulitis depends on how severe the infection is. If you have symptoms of cellulitis but no fever, you can make an appointment with your primary care doctor, as long as they’re able to see you within one day. But if you do have a fever in addition to other cellulitis symptoms, it’s best to head to the emergency room or an urgent care center.
A doctor will start by checking your symptoms. They’ll look for red, blotchy areas of skin that feel warm to the touch. If the infection seems to be in its early stages, you’ll likely just need a round of oral antibiotics. Make sure to take the full course as prescribed by your doctor, even if you stop noticing symptoms after a day or two.
Sometimes, oral antibiotics don’t work as expected, so make sure to follow up with your doctor if you aren’t noticing any improvement after two or three days. You may need a different type of antibiotic.
If the infection is spreading or seems more severe, you may need intravenous antibiotics. Your doctor may also recommend this if you have a condition that affects your immune system. Depending on your symptoms, you may need to stay in the hospital for a few days to ensure the infection doesn’t enter your bloodstream.
Sometimes oral antibiotics don’t work as well as they should. If your cellulitis is not improving after two or three days, your doctor may prescribe a different antibiotic or have you admitted for IV treatment.
Cellulitis requires treatment with antibiotics, which are only prescribed by a doctor. But as you recover at home, there are several things you can do to ease any discomfort and avoid complications.
- Covering your wound. Properly covering the affected skin will help it heal and prevent irritation. Follow your doctor’s instructions for dressing your wound and be sure to change your bandage regularly.
- Keeping the area clean. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for cleaning the affected skin.
- Elevating the affected area. If your leg is affected, lie down and elevate your leg above your heart. This will help reduce swelling and ease your pain.
- Applying a cool compress. If the affected skin is hot and painful, apply a clean washcloth soaked in cool water. Avoid chemical icepacks, as these can further irritate damaged skin.
- Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), can help reduce pain and inflammation.
- Treating any underlying conditions. Treat any underlying conditions, such as athlete’s foot or eczema, that caused the wound that got infected.
- Taking all your antibiotics. With antibiotic treatment, the symptoms of cellulitis should begin to disappear within 48 hours, but it’s very important to continue taking your antibiotics until all the pills are gone. Otherwise, it may come back, and the second course of antibiotics may not be as effective as the first.
Without antibiotic treatment, cellulitis can spread beyond the skin. It can enter your lymph nodes and spread into your bloodstream. Once it reaches your bloodstream, bacteria can cause quickly cause a life-threatening infection known as blood poisoning.
Without proper treatment, cellulitis can also return. Repeated cellulitis can cause permanent damage to your lymph nodes, which play an important role in your immune system.
In rare cases, severe cellulitis infections can spread into deep layers of tissue. An infection of the fascia, a deep layer of tissue surrounding your muscles and organs, is known as necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease. People with necrotizing fasciitis usually need multiple surgeries to remove dead tissue, often entire limbs.
Cellulitis is a serious condition that shouldn’t be treated at home. Within hours, it can escalate into a life-threatening blood infection. Go to your local urgent care clinic or emergency room if you think you have cellulitis. Early antibiotic treatment is key in reducing your risk of serious complications.