What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a skin infection that is caused by bacteria. It is a common infection but can become a serious condition if not treated. Most of the time, cellulitis affects the skin on your lower legs. But it can appear anywhere on your body and even on your face. The infection begins on the surface of your skin, but can affect the underlying layers of skin, too. Untreated, cellulitis can even spread to your lymph nodes or cause a blood infection (sepsis).

Symptoms of cellulitis

Cellulitis is usually painful. The affected area will be red and possibly inflamed (swollen). It may also feel warm to the touch.

Other common symptoms include

  • Skin on the affected area may look glossy or seem “stretched.”
  • A sore that grows quickly, especially within the first day. It may be leaky or have pus.
  • General feeling of being sick.
  • Feeling of being tired.

More serious symptoms that could mean the infection is spreading:

  • Fever or chills.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Red streaks around the area.
  • A loss of energy or feeling especially tired or sleepy.
  • Increased pain.

If you have any of these symptoms, you should contact your doctor immediately or seek emergency care.

What causes cellulitis?

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria. It is normal for bacteria to live on your skin. When you have a break in your skin, those bacteria can enter and cause an infection. A break in your skin can be caused by many things. It could happen when you scratch dry skin, when an insect bites you, or you accidentally bump up against something that scrapes your skin.

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will most likely be able to tell that you have cellulitis by looking at your skin. He or she will also feel your glands to see if they are swollen. Your doctor may want to order some blood tests to make sure the infection hasn’t spread to your blood. He or she could also collect fluid from the affected area to test it.

Can cellulitis be prevented or avoided?

Cellulitis cannot always be prevented. You can lower your risk for cellulitis by moisturizing and taking care of your skin. You should also wash your hands often and keep your fingernails trimmed.

If you have a skin wound, make sure to keep it clean. You should wash it daily or use an antiseptic or antibiotic cream to keep it clean. Look at it every day for possible signs of infection. If you see that the wound is growing or becoming more painful, contact your doctor.

Certain illnesses or conditions may increase your risk for getting cellulitis. If you have diabetes or vascular disease, you may have more breaks in your skin in the form of ulcers. Eczema can cause more breaks in your skin, too. You may also be at higher risk if you use medicines that could suppress your immune system, such as corticosteroids. Obesity can also increase your risk for cellulitis.

Cellulitis treatment

Your doctor will most likely prescribe oral antibiotics to treat your cellulitis. He or she also may offer you pain medicine, if needed.

If your infection is more severe, your doctor may recommend that you go to the hospital for intravenous (IV) antibiotics. IV antibiotics are liquid medicine delivered directly into your vein (usually an arm vein) using a needle. Other reasons your doctor may recommend this treatment include:

  • Oral antibiotics are not working.
  • Your cellulitis covers a large area of skin.
  • You have a high fever.
  • You are especially young or old.
  • You have other diseases or conditions.

Living with cellulitis

In most cases, cellulitis goes away with antibiotic treatment. It is rare for it to spread to your bloodstream, but it can happen. That is why it is important to keep an eye on rashes and wounds. Cellulitis can return if you have a disease or condition that makes you prone to wounds or nicks in your skin. Good wound care and washing your hands can help keep the infection from spreading.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How did I get this infection?
  • How can I prevent this infection in the future?
  • Am I at increased risk for developing cellulitis?
  • Is cellulitis contagious?
  • What can I do to relieve my pain?