Cellulitis is a common skin infection with symptoms that may include an irritated or painful rash, skin blisters, swelling, and fever. Early treatment is the best way to prevent potentially serious complications from cellulitis.

Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection. It happens when small cuts or other skin breaks allow bacteria to enter. It causes painful inflammation and swelling and can make your skin feel overly warm. In most cases, cellulitis outbreaks occur on the lower legs. However, your arms, face, and other areas of the body can also be affected.

It’s important not to ignore cellulitis symptoms. The condition will not go away on its own, but early treatment can prevent serious complications. If cellulitis is left untreated, the infection can spread to the bloodstream and to the lymph nodes. Once the infection begins to spread, it can quickly become life threatening.

Cellulitis causes a range of painful and unpleasant symptoms. In most cases, symptoms only occur on one side of the body. Early treatment can prevent complications and stop the spread of cellulitis before it becomes life threatening.

Common cellulitis symptoms

The early symptoms of cellulitis can present differently in different people. The symptoms and how severe they are can also vary depending on the part of your body that’s affected.

General symptoms of cellulitis typically include:

  • blisters
  • swelling
  • an irritated rash
  • lines that run outward from the main rash area
  • pain in the affected area
  • skin that’s tender to the touch
  • skin that’s warm to the touch
  • skin that feels tight or looks glossy
  • skin dents or dimpling
  • fever
  • headache

Severe symptoms of cellulitis

Symptoms usually get more severe as cellulitis spreads. These symptoms are a sign the infection has spread to your bloodstream.

Symptoms of severe cellulitis include:

  • a rash that’s growing and changing rapidly
  • a very large rash that’s inflamed and painful
  • numbness, tingling, or any other changes in sensation in the affected area
  • skin darkening
  • swelling and inflammation around your eyes or behind your ears
  • lightheadedness
  • fatigue
  • chills
  • weakness
  • muscle aches

Risk factors for developing cellulitis

There are several known risk factors for developing cellulitis. These include:

  • Skin injuries: Openings in your skin like cuts, burns, and scrapes can allow bacteria to enter.
  • Skin conditions: Skin conditions like eczema and shingles can create breaks in your skin that allow bacteria to enter.
  • A weakened immune system: Any condition or medication that weakens your immune system can increase your risk of cellulitis.
  • Chronic swelling of your arms or legs: People with chronic swelling, called lymphedema, are at an increased risk of cellulitis.
  • Being overweight or having obesity: Having a higher body weight can increase the risk of cellulitis.
  • Previous episodes of cellulitis: People who’ve had cellulitis in the past are at increased risk of developing it in the future.
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It’s always important to see a doctor for cellulitis. This condition will not go away without medical care. It’s best to make a medical appointment right away if you notice any symptoms that could be a sign of cellulitis.

Some symptoms indicate that cellulitis is spreading. Get immediate medical care if you:

  • notice any symptoms of cellulitis and you also have diabetes
  • have fever along with a painful rash that continues to grow and spread
  • notice changes to how your skin looks or feels
  • feel feverish, achy, fatigued, or lightheaded, and also have a painful rash

Symptoms of cellulitis will often get worse within the first 48 hours of receiving treatment. You’ll usually start to see an improvement within 2 to 3 days of starting antibiotics. If your symptoms do not start to improve during this time, contact your doctor. You might need a different treatment.

Cellulitis is often diagnosed through physical examination. A doctor will examine your skin and may be able to make a diagnosis based on your rash and other skin symptoms. Sometimes bloodwork is ordered to rule out similar skin conditions and infections.

The most common treatment for cellulitis is antibiotic medication. In most cases, you’ll be prescribed an oral antibiotic that you’ll need to take for 5 to 10 days. It’s very important to take the entire course of antibiotics, even if your symptoms start to improve.

If your symptoms are severe or do not respond to antibiotics, you might need to be hospitalized. In the hospital, you’ll receive intravenous (IV) antibiotics. If you have any abscesses in your skin, they may need to be surgically drained.

Cellulitis can be successfully treated with antibiotics. However, untreated cellulitis can lead to serious complications and can even be fatal. Complications of cellulitis include:

  • Bacteremia: Bacteremia is a potentially life threatening infection in your bloodstream that can spread quickly.
  • Endocarditis: Endocarditis is a life threatening infection and inflammation of your heart.
  • Sepsis: Sepsis is a medical emergency caused by your body’s response to a severe infection.
  • Osteomyelitis: Osteomyelitis is a painful bone infection that often needs surgical treatment.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis: Necrotizing fasciitis is a life threatening and painful infection of body tissues under the skin.

There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of cellulitis, especially if you have risk factors for developing the condition.

Some steps you can take to prevent cellulitis include:

  • Always gently washing any wounds or cuts on your skin with soap and water.
  • Using protective creams and other moisturizers like Vaseline to help keep bacteria out of cuts and wounds.
  • Covering wounds and cuts with bandages and changing them at least once a day.
  • Monitoring any cuts or wounds for signs of infection like pain, irritation, or pus.
  • Moisturizing your skin daily to prevent cracks.
  • Wearing gloves, socks, and other weather-appropriate clothing to prevent cold weather from damaging your skin.
  • Wearing gloves for household chores and any time your hands might be exposed to chemicals.
  • Always treating any skin infections, including common minor conditions like athlete’s foot, quickly.
  • If you have a weakened immune system, talking with your doctor about extra precautions you can take to avoid cellulitis is helpful.

Cellulitis is a skin infection that can be easily treated with antibiotics.

However, it can be fatal without treatment. Untreated cellulitis can spread and quickly cause life threatening complications. It’s important to seek medical care as soon as you notice any symptoms of cellulitis.

Early symptoms of cellulitis include an irritated and painful rash that’s warm to the touch. Your skin might blister and swell, and you might develop a fever. More severe symptoms such as a growing and changing rash, a change to the appearance of or sensation in your skin, and lightheadedness are signs you need urgent medical care.

Good skin care can help you prevent cellulitis. Be careful to clean and cover any wounds and cuts and wear protective gloves when needed. Your doctor might have additional suggestions that are specific to your cellulitis risk factors.