What is it?
- Cellulitis is a common, potentially serious bacterial skin infection. Cellulitis appears as a swollen, red area of skin that feels hot and tender, and it may spread rapidly.
- Skin on lower legs is most commonly affected, though cellulitis can occur anywhere on your body or face. Cellulitis may affect only your skin's surface — or, cellulitis may also affect tissues underlying your skin and can spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream.
- Left untreated, the spreading infection may rapidly turn life-threatening. That's why it's important to seek immediate medical attention if cellulitis symptoms occur.
Possible signs and symptoms of cellulitis include:
The changes in your skin may be accompanied by a fever. Over time, the area of redness tends to expand. Small red spots may appear on top of the reddened skin, and less commonly, small blisters may form and burst.
Cellulitis occurs when one or more types of bacteria enter through a crack or break in your skin. The two most common types of bacteria that are causes of cellulitis are streptococcus and staphylococcus. The incidence of a more serious staphylococcus infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is increasing.
Although cellulitis can occur anywhere on your body, the most common location is the lower leg. Disrupted areas of skin, such as where you've had recent surgery, cuts, puncture wounds, an ulcer, athlete's foot or dermatitis, serve as the most likely areas for bacteria to enter.
Certain types of insect or spider bites also can transmit the bacteria that start the infection. Areas of dry, flaky skin also can be an entry point for bacteria, as can swollen skin.
Several factors can place you at greater risk of developing cellulitis:
- Known injury. Any cut, fracture, burn or even a scrape increases your risk of cellulitis because the injury gives bacteria an entry point.
- Weakened immune system. Conditions that weaken your immune system leave you more susceptible to infections such as cellulitis. Possible conditions that can weaken your immune system include diabetes, chronic leukemias, HIV/AIDS, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, circulation disorders and the use of certain medications, such as corticosteroids.
- Skin conditions. Certain skin disorders, such as eczema, athlete's foot, chickenpox and shingles, cause breaks in the skin and increase your risk of cellulitis.
- Chronic swelling of your arms or legs (lymphedema). Swollen tissue may crack, leaving your skin vulnerable to bacterial infection.
- Intravenous drug use. People who inject illicit drugs have a higher risk of developing cellulitis.
This reddened skin or rash may signal a deeper, more serious infection of the inner layers of skin. Once below your skin, the bacteria can spread rapidly, entering your lymph nodes and your bloodstream and spreading throughout your body. Recurrent episodes of cellulitis may actually damage the lymphatic drainage system and cause chronic swelling of the affected extremity.
In rare cases, the infection can spread to the deep layer of tissue called the fascial lining. Flesh-eating strep, also called necrotizing fasciitis, is an example of a deep-layer infection. It represents an extreme emergency.
The appearance of your skin will help your doctor make a diagnosis. Your doctor may also suggest blood tests, a wound culture or other tests to help rule out a blood clot deep in the veins of your legs. Cellulitis in the lower leg is characterized by signs and symptoms that may be similar to those of a clot occurring deep in the veins, such as warmth, pain and swelling.
Treatments and drugs
- Cellulitis treatment may involve a prescription oral antibiotic. You'll likely recheck with your doctor one to three days after starting an antibiotic to ensure that the infection is responding to treatment. You'll need to take the antibiotic for up to 14 days. In most cases, signs and symptoms of cellulitis disappear after a few days. If they don't clear up, if they're extensive or if you have a high fever, you may need to be hospitalized and receive antibiotics through your veins (intravenously).
- Usually, doctors prescribe a drug that's effective against both streptococci and staphylococci. Your doctor will choose an antibiotic based on your circumstances.
- No matter what type of antibiotic your doctor prescribes, it's important that you take the medication as directed and that you finish the entire course of medication, even if you start feeling better.
To help prevent cellulitis and other infections, follow these measures anytime you have a skin wound:
- Wash your wound daily with soap and water. Do this gently as part of your normal bathing.
- Apply an antibiotic cream or ointment. For most surface wounds, a single- or double-antibiotic ointment provides adequate protection.
- Watch for signs of infection. Redness, pain and drainage all signal possible infection and the need for medical evaluation.
People with diabetes and those with poor circulation need to take extra precautions to prevent skin wounds and treat any cuts or cracks in the skin promptly. Good skin-care measures include the following:
- Inspect your feet daily. Regularly check your feet for signs of injury so you can catch any infections early.
- Moisturize your skin regularly. Lubricating your skin helps prevent cracking and peeling.
- Trim your fingernails and toenails carefully. Take care not to injure the surrounding skin.
- Protect your hands and feet. Wear appropriate footwear and gloves.
- Promptly treat any superficial skin infections, such as athlete's foot. Infections on the surface of the skin (superficial) can easily spread from person to person. Don't wait to start treatment.