Cellulitis: Complications, Symptoms, Contagious, Causes & Treatment
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that typically occurs in the deep layers of the skin, or Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection. Cellulitis may first appear as a red, swollen area that feels hot and tender to the touch. The redness and swelling often spread rapidly. Cellulitis is usually painful. Cellulitis usually affects the surface of your skin, but it may also affect the underlying tissues. Cellulitis can also spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream.
If cellulitis isn’t treated, the infection might become life-threatening. You should get medical help right away if you experience the symptoms of cellulitis.
Symptoms of Cellulitis can include:
• Spreading redness
• Red spots
• Skin dimpling
• Tenderness and pain
Some common symptoms of a more serious cellulitis infection are:
• A feeling of illness
• Muscle aches
• Warm skin
Anyone with symptoms that may be related to cellulitis should immediately consult their doctor, as the infection can rapidly spread throughout the body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Untreated cellulitis can damage lymph nodes, infect the bloodstream, and can even become life-threatening.
Is cellulitis contagious?
Typically, you cannot get it from someone who has cellulitis or spread it to another person. That being said, if you have an open wound that directly comes into contact with the infected area of a person with cellulitis, there’s an increased chance you could get a case yourself. Risk factors that can increase your chances include:
1. Injury. A break in the skin can serve as an entry point for bacteria.
2. Skin condition. Skin conditions such as athlete’s foot and eczema can give bacteria an entry point.
3. Weak immune system. You’ll be more susceptible to infections if you have a condition — such as HIV/AIDS, leukemia, or diabetes — that weakens your immune system.
4. Obesity. You have a higher risk of developing cellulitis if you’re overweight or obese.
5. History. If you’ve had cellulitis in the past, you’ll be prone to developing it again.
Causes and diagnosis for cellulitis
Cellulitis is common infection that can affect anyone. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), there are an estimated 14.5 million cases of cellulitis diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Adults typically experience cellulitis in the lower legs, although it can occur anywhere there’s a break in the skin, according to Julie Maher, a clinical assistant professor of nursing at Carthage College in Wisconsin.
Several types of bacteria may cause cellulitis, the most common being the Streptococcus (strep), Staphylococcus (staph) and the difficult-to-treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria, Maher told Live Science. These bacteria are among many that live on our skin and never present a problem in most healthy individuals.
But if the bacteria enter the body through an opening in the skin, like a scratch or an open sore, then there’s the possibility of infection.
Cellulitis is also more common in people who tend to get skin injuries more often — rambunctious children, athletes, military personnel, residents of a long-term care facility and those who use intravenous drugs, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Usually, doctors can quickly diagnose cellulitis on sight but will perform tests to determine the extent of the infection, according to Healthline. The doctor will assess things like the amount of swelling, the extent of the redness over the affected area and if any glands or lymph nodes are swollen. They might also take blood or skin samples to identify the bacteria causing the infection, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Treatment options for cellulitis
Your doctor will usually prescribe a 10- to 21-day regimen of oral antibiotics to treat your cellulitis. The length of your treatment with oral antibiotics will depend on the severity of your condition. More serious cases may require a hospital stay and intravenous antibiotics.
People with certain preexisting medical conditions and risk factors may need to stay in the hospital for observation during treatment. Your doctor may advise hospitalization if you have:
• high temperature.
• high blood pressure.
• an infection that doesn’t improve with antibiotics.
• a compromised immune system due to other diseases.
Even if symptoms improve within a few days, it’s important to take all of the medication prescribed to ensure proper treatment.
It’s important to keep the infected area clean and covered, and to keep it elevated to help decrease swelling — a good reason to stay on the couch and away from other bacteria.
Most cases of cellulitis clear up quickly with these treatments but people with weakened or compromised immune systems might not be able to fight off the infection.
Possible complications of cellulitis
Sometimes cellulitis can spread throughout the body, entering the lymph nodes and bloodstream. In rare cases, it can enter into deeper layers of tissue. Potential complications that can occur are:
• Blood infection
• Bone infection
• An inflammation of your lymph vessels
• Tissue death, or gangrene
Cellulitis preventative measures
Good hand hygiene is one of the best ways to reduce the chances of getting cellulitis. All you need is soap, warm water and friction to decrease the number of bacteria living on the skin. In general, good skin hygiene will help keep skin moisturized and therefore limit cracks or openings in the skin that might result from dryness. Making sure your body is properly hydrated can also lower the chances of developing cellulitis.
But when you do get a cut, wash the wound as soon as possible with soap and warm water, before applying a protective ointment (such as a petroleum-based jelly like Vaseline or Aquaphor, or a topical antibiotic like Polysporin or Neosporin), the Mayo Clinic suggested. Bandages provide an additional layer of protection from bacteria and should be changed daily.
Check with your doctor about keeping open wounds such as blisters or more severe cuts clean and protected.
Is there anything I can do at home when infected with Cellulitis?
Cellulitis requires treatment with antibiotics, which are only prescribed by a doctor. But as you recover at home, there are several things you can do to ease any discomfort and avoid complications.
• Covering your wound. Properly covering the affected skin will help it heal and prevent irritation. Follow your doctor’s instructions for dressing your wound and be sure to change your bandage regularly.
• Keeping the area clean. Follow your doctor’s recommendations for cleaning the affected skin.
• Elevating the affected area. If your leg is affected, lie down and elevate your leg above your heart. This will help reduce swelling and ease your pain.
• Applying a cool compress. If the affected skin is hot and painful, apply a clean washcloth soaked in cool water. Avoid chemical icepacks, as these can further irritate damaged skin.
• Taking an over-the-counter pain reliever. A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory, like ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or naproxen (Aleve), can help reduce pain and inflammation.
• Treating any underlying conditions. Treat any underlying conditions, such as athlete’s foot or eczema, that caused the wound that got infected.
• Taking all your antibiotics. With antibiotic treatment, the symptoms of cellulitis should begin to disappear within 48 hours, but it’s very important to continue taking your antibiotics until all the pills are gone. Otherwise, it may come back, and the second course of antibiotics may not be as effective as the first.
Additional resources for more finding of cellulitis:
• More information on group A steptococcal infections from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
• Information about cellulitis from MedlinePlus.
• Education on skin infections from UpToDate.