Find out more about this potentially serious skin infection and how a few simple skin care tips can help prevent it.
Cellulitis (sel-u-LIE-tis) is a common, potentially serious bacterial skin infection. The affected skin is swollen and inflamed and is typically painful and warm to the touch.
Cellulitis usually affects the lower legs, but it can occur on the face, arms and other areas. The infection happens when a break in the skin allows bacteria to enter.
Left untreated, the infection can spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream and rapidly become life-threatening. It isn't usually spread from person to person.
Cellulitis is usually a superficial infection of the skin (left). But if severe (right) or if left untreated, it can spread into the lymph nodes and bloodstream.
Cellulitis usually occurs on one side of the body. Its signs and symptoms may include:
It's important to identify and treat cellulitis early because the condition can spread rapidly throughout your body.
Seek emergency care if:
See your health care provider, preferably within the same day, if:
Cellulitis is caused when bacteria, most commonly streptococcus and staphylococcus, enter through a crack or break in the skin. The incidence of a more serious staphylococcus infection called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is increasing.
Cellulitis can occur anywhere on the body, but the most common location is the lower leg. Bacteria are most likely to enter broken, dry, flaky or swollen skin, such as through a recent surgical site, cuts, puncture wounds, ulcers, athlete's foot or dermatitis.
Several factors increase the risk of cellulitis:
Untreated cellulitis might lead to bacteremia, endocarditis, osteomyelitis, toxic shock syndrome or sepsis. Rarely, the infection can spread to the deep layer of tissue called the fascial lining. Necrotizing fasciitis is an example of a deep-layer infection. It's an extreme emergency.
Recurrent episodes of cellulitis may damage the lymphatic drainage system and cause chronic swelling of the affected limb.
If your cellulitis recurs, your health care provider may recommend preventive antibiotics. To help prevent cellulitis and other infections, take these precautions when you have a skin wound:
People with diabetes or poor circulation need to take extra precautions to prevent skin injury. Good skin care includes the following:
Your health care provider will likely be able to diagnose cellulitis by looking at your skin. You might need to undergo a blood test or other tests to help rule out other conditions.
Cellulitis treatment usually includes a prescription oral antibiotic. Within three days of starting an antibiotic, let your health care provider know whether the infection is responding to treatment. You'll need to take the antibiotic for the full course, usually 5 to 10 days, even if you start to feel better.
Symptoms typically disappear a few days after you start treatment. You may need to be hospitalized and receive antibiotics through your veins (intravenously) if:
Try these steps to help ease any pain and swelling:
You're likely to start by seeing your primary care provider, who may refer you to a doctor who specializes in skin disorders (dermatologist). If you have a severe infection, an emergency room doctor may examine you first. You may also be referred to an infectious disease specialist.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.
Preparing a list of questions can help you make sure that you cover the points that are important to you. For cellulitis, some basic questions to ask your health care provider include:
Don't hesitate to ask other questions you have.
Your health care provider is likely to ask you questions such as:
You may need a prescription antibiotic to clear your infection. However, until you see your health care provider, you can wash the injured area with soap and water and place a cool, damp cloth over it.