What Is Cellulitis?
Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection. Cellulitis may
first appear as a red, swollen area that feels hot and tender to the touch. The
redness and swelling often spread rapidly. Cellulitis is usually painful.
In most cases, the skin on the lower legs is affected, although
the infection can occur anywhere on your body or face. Cellulitis usually
affects the surface of your skin, but it may also affect the underlying tissues
of your skin. Cellulitis can also spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream.
If cellulitis isn’t treated, the infection might spread and
become life-threatening. You should get medical help right away if you
experience the symptoms of cellulitis.
Symptoms of Cellulitis
The symptoms of cellulitis may include:
- pain and tenderness in the affected area
- redness or inflammation of your skin
- a skin sore or rash that appears and grows
- a tight, glossy, swollen appearance of the skin
- a feeling of warmth in the affected area
- a central area that has an abscess with pus
- a fever
Some common symptoms of a more serious cellulitis infection are:
- a feeling of illness
- muscle aches
- warm skin
Symptoms such as the following could signal that cellulitis is
- red streaks
You should contact your doctor immediately if any of these
Cellulitis Causes and Risk Factors
Cellulitis occurs when certain types of bacteria enter through a
cut or crack in the skin. Cellulitis is commonly caused by Staphylococcus and Streptococcus
Skin injuries such as cuts, insect bites, or surgical incisions
are commonly the sites of the infection. Certain factors also increase your
risk of developing cellulitis.
Common risk factors include:
- a weakened immune system
- skin conditions that cause breaks in the skin,
such as eczema and athlete’s foot
- intravenous (IV) drug use
- a history of cellulitis
Your doctor can usually diagnose cellulitis on sight, but they’ll
perform a physical exam to determine the extent of your condition. This exam
- 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 redness or swelling
spread. In some cases, your doctor may perform a blood test or a culture of the
wound to test for the presence of bacteria.
Your doctor will usually prescribe a 10- to 21-day regimen of
oral antibiotics to treat your cellulitis. The length of your treatment with
oral antibiotics will depend on the severity of your condition. Even if
symptoms improve within a few days, it’s important to take all of the
medication prescribed to ensure proper treatment. While you’re taking
antibiotics, monitor your condition to see if symptoms improve. In most cases,
symptoms will improve or disappear within a few days.
In some cases, pain relievers are prescribed. You should rest
until your symptoms improve. While you rest, you should raise the affected limb
higher than your heart to reduce any swelling.
Contact your doctor immediately if you don’t respond to treatment
within three days after beginning a round of antibiotics, if your symptoms get
worse, or if you develop a fever.
Cellulitis should go away within seven to 10 days of starting
antibiotics. Longer treatment could be necessary if your infection is severe.
This can occur if you suffer from a chronic disease or if your immune system
isn’t working properly.
People with certain pre-existing medical conditions and risk
factors may need to stay in the hospital for observation during treatment. Your
doctor may advise hospitalization if you:
- have high temperature
- have high blood pressure
- have an infection that doesn’t improve with
- have a compromised immune system due to other
- require IV antibiotics when oral antibiotics
Possible Complications of Cellulitis
Sometimes cellulitis can spread throughout the body, entering the
lymph nodes and bloodstream. In rare cases, it can enter into deeper layers of
tissue. Potential complications that can occur are:
- a blood infection
- a bone infection
- an inflammation of your lymph vessels
- tissue death, or gangrene
If you have a break in your skin, clean it immediately and apply
antibiotic ointment regularly. Cover your wound with a bandage and change it
daily, until a scab forms. Watch your wounds for redness, drainage, or pain.
These symptoms could indicate an infection. People with poor circulation or who
have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk for cellulitis should take
extra precautions, including:
- keeping skin moist to prevent cracking
- promptly treating superficial skin infections,
such as athlete’s foot
- wearing protective equipment when working or
- inspecting feet daily for signs of injury or infection