What is cellulitis?
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection in the skin and tissue beneath the skin. It usually develops on your arms and legs, but it can also develop on the stomach, anus, and around your mouth and eyes. Normal skin can develop cellulitis, but it usually occurs when bacteria enters an open wound.
Symptoms of cellulitis
Cellulitis can spread and change quickly. It’s important to monitor your skin and speak to your doctor if you notice cellulitis symptoms, which may include skin that is:
- Pitted, like an orange peel
- Streaked red
You may also experience:
Causes of cellulitis
People normally have bacteria on the skin and in the mucus membranes of the mouth and nose. These are usually Staphylococcus or Streptococcus bacteria. These and other bacteria can enter the skin through cuts, burns, skin abscesses, surgery, animal bites, fungal infections like Athlete’s foot, and skin disorders like eczema.
When the bacteria enter the skin, they grow and cause an infection. Normally, the skin can stop an infection from spreading, but Streptococcus bacteria make enzymes that stop the skin from containing it so that the infection can spread quickly.
Who can get cellulitis?
Anyone can develop cellulitis, but some people may be more prone to infection. These may include people who:
- Have broken skin, including cuts, bites, or scrapes
- Get tattoos or piercings
- Inject drugs
- Have chickenpox and shingles
- Have chronic skin conditions like Athlete’s foot and eczema
- Are overweight
- Have diabetes
- Have lymphedema
- Have chronic edema
- Have a weakened immune system
- Have bed sores
- Have had cellulitis before
- Have poor circulation
- Find it hard to move around
- Have a surgery wound
Diagnosis for cellulitis
Your doctor will usually diagnose cellulitis based on its appearance and your symptoms. They will need to examine your skin, look at your personal and medical history, and create a record of your symptoms.
Treatments for cellulitis
Cellulitis requires antibiotic treatment. With early treatment, you can prevent more serious problems. You can also manage your symptoms with over-the-counter medications and self-care practices for cellulitis along with your antibiotic.
Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics for cellulitis. Depending on how advanced the infection is, these may include:
- Antibiotic cream
- Antibiotic tablets
- Antibiotic injections into the muscle
- Intravenous (IV) antibiotics
Your doctor may prescribe dicloxacillin, cephalexin, trimethoprim with sulfamethoxazole, clindamycin, or doxycycline antibiotics. It is important to take your cellulitis antibiotic medication as ordered, even when you start to feel better. This helps make sure the bacteria don’t return.
You can also take over-the-counter medications with your cellulitis antibiotics to help your symptoms. These include:
You can relieve your cellulitis symptoms with some self-care practices at home alongside your medication. These can include:
- Elevating the affected part of your body to reduce swelling
- Regularly moving the joint near the affected area, such as your ankle, to prevent stiffness
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Avoiding compression stockings
- Keeping skin clean
- Moisturizing skin to prevent cracks
- Wearing proper footwear
- Cleaning wounds and cuts
- Wearing gloves while working outside
You should not treat cellulitis with alternative therapies alone. Cellulitis can be very serious and potentially life-threatening, so you will need antibiotics.
You should not only use herbal supplements or plant oils to treat cellulitis. Although they can help kill bacteria on the skin and be useful if your cellulitis is resistant to treatment, they may also interact negatively with your medications. You should speak to your doctor about using alternative therapies.
Complications and side effects of cellulitis
Cellulitis can quickly turn serious or life-threatening if it isn’t treated properly. Some complications may include:
- Tissue damage and tissue death, known as gangrene
- Infection that spreads to the blood, called sepsis
- Infection that spreads to the bones, lymph system, heart, or nervous system
- Necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh eating disease, results in soft tissue death
These problems can lead to:
Mild cellulitis resolves quickly with antibiotic treatment, but it is important to speak to your doctor to monitor your condition.
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Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cellulitis."
Merck Manual: "Cellulitis."
National Health Service: "Cellulitis."
St. Luke's Hospital: "Cellulitis."