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

There are over 14 million cases of cellulitis in the United States each year. The infection can occur anywhere on the body, leading to serious complications if untreated.

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

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 a doctor right away if you have symptoms of cellulitis.

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 chance of getting cellulitis.

For example, you’re more likely to develop cellulitis if you have a skin condition like eczema or athlete’s foot. 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:

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 have spread. Sometimes, your doctor may take blood or a wound sample to test for bacteria.

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

Cellulitis treatment typically involves taking antibiotics by mouth for at least 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 7–10 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, taking all the antibiotics your doctor prescribes is critical.

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 drains the pus.

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, you can do things 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.

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

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.

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

What is the first stage of cellulitis?

Cellulitis may start as localized changes in your skin, including redness, swelling, heat, and tenderness to the touch. You may also have a low grade fever. If these signs are present, consider getting prompt medical assistance. You may prevent complications when cellulitis is diagnosed early.

What helps cellulitis go away?

Cellulitis requires medical intervention. A healthcare professional will recommend oral antibiotics, intravenous antibiotics (IV), or both depending on your symptoms.

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

Pain in the affected area, inflammation of the skin (redness, heat, swelling, pain), skin sores or rashes that spread quickly, tight and glossy skin, lesions with pus, and fever are common symptoms of cellulitis.

Will cellulitis go away on its own?

Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that requires antibiotics to clear, so it’s unlikely to go away on its own. If left untreated, cellulitis may lead to serious complications.

How long does it take to recover from cellulitis?

With medical treatment, your symptoms may worsen for the first 48 hours. However, they should begin to improve 2–3 days after you start taking antibiotics. You should always finish any course of antibiotics your doctor prescribes.

What other conditions may be confused with cellulitis?

Many conditions can present symptoms similar to those of cellulitis. They include:

How contagious is 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 develop cellulitis from a transmitted infection, it could be dangerous if you don’t treat it on time. This is why it’s important to tell your doctor as soon as you notice symptoms of cellulitis.

What are the signs of sepsis from cellulitis?

Sepsis can develop if cellulitis isn’t treated and the bacteria spread to your bloodstream. Here are the symptoms of sepsis.

Is cellulitis a form of MRSA?

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is an antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can cause cellulitis. In the case of MRSA cellulitis, your doctor will choose antibiotics that the bacteria isn’t resistant to.

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 a doctor if you develop symptoms of cellulitis.

Most people fully recover from cellulitis after 7–10 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 a doctor if you’re unsure how to properly care for your skin after an injury.

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