Cellulitis is a painful bacterial infection of the deeper layers of skin. It can start suddenly and become life threatening without prompt treatment. Mild cases involve a localized infection, with redness in one area. More serious cases involve a rapidly spreading infection that can lead to sepsis. The spread will depend, to some extent, on how strong the person’s immune system is. There are several causes of cellulitis.
- Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin and tissues beneath the skin.
- Staphylococcus and Streptococcus are the types of bacteria that are usually responsible for cellulitis, although many types of bacteria can cause the condition.
- Cellulitis is not contagious.
- Sometimes cellulitis appears in areas where the skin has broken open, such as the skin near ulcers or surgical wounds.
- Symptoms and signs of cellulitis include: redness, pain and tenderness, swelling, enlarged lymph nodes, and warmth of the affected area.
- Cellulitis can occur anywhere in the body but frequently affects the legs.
- Complications of severe cellulitis include spread of the infection from the affected area into the bloodstream or to other body tissues.
- Cellulitis is treated with oral or intravenous antibiotics.
Cellulitis can occur anywhere on the body, including the hands and feet. Adults tend to develop cellulitis in the lower leg, while children tend to develop it on the face or neck. Some types include:
- Periorbital cellulitis, which develops around the eyes.
- Facial cellulitis, which develops around the eyes, nose, and cheeks.
- Breast cellulitis.
- Perianal cellulitis, which develops around the anal orifice.
Symptoms of Cellulitis
Cellulitis can appear on almost any part of the body. It usually shows up on damaged skin such as inflamed wounds, dirty cuts, and areas with poor circulation.
Common symptoms include:
- Red streaking.
- Pain or tenderness.
- Leaking of yellow, clear fluid or pus.
Causes of Cellulitis and Risk Factors
There are several causes of cellulitis. Bacteria from the Streptococcus and Staphylococcus groups are common on the surface of the skin, where they are not harmful. If they enter the skin, usually through a cut or scratch, they can cause an infection. Cellulitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria can infect the deeper layers of your skin if it’s broken for example, because of an insect bite or cut, or if it’s cracked and dry.
You’re more at risk of cellulitis if you:
- Have poor circulation in your arms, legs, hands or feet for example, because you’re overweight.
- Find it difficult to move around.
- Have a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy treatment or diabetes.
- There is lymphoedema, which causes fluid build-up under the skin.
- Have bedsores (pressure ulcers).
- Inject drugs.
- Have a wound from surgery.
- Had cellulitis before.
People who are more at risk of cellulitis should treat any athlete’s foot promptly.
Your doctor may suggest one or more treatment options. A mild case of cellulitis usually responds to oral antibiotic treatment in 7–14 days. The symptoms may initially worsen, but they usually start improving within 2 days.
Different types of antibiotics can treat cellulitis. The doctor will decide on the best option, after taking into account the type of bacteria behind the infection and factors specific to each person.
Most people recover within 2 weeks, but it may take longer if the symptoms are severe. A doctor may prescribe a low-dose oral antibiotic for long term use to prevent reoccurrence. Some people with severe cellulitis require hospital treatment, especially if:
- They have a high fever.
- There is vomiting.
- They are experiencing a reoccurrence of cellulitis.
- Current treatment is not working.
- The symptoms are becoming more severe.
In the hospital, most people with this type of infection receive antibiotic treatment intravenously, with a drip that delivers the medication through a vein in the arm.
You can follow the following tips to prevent cellulitis:
- If you have a break in your skin, clean it right away and apply antibiotic ointment.
- Cover your wound with a bandage. Change the bandage daily until a scab forms.
- Watch your wounds for redness, drainage, or pain. These could be signs of an infection.
- 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.
Take these precautions if you have poor circulation or a condition that increases your risk of cellulitis.
- American Academy of Dermatology – Cellulitis
- NHS – Cellulitis.
- Chambers, H. F. (2013). Editorial commentary: Cellulitis, by any other name.
- Orchard, A., & van Vuuren, S. (2017). Commercial essential oils as potential antimicrobials to treat skin diseases.
- Mayo Clinic Staff – Dermatitis.