Cellulitis is a skin infection caused by bacteria. Normally, your skin helps protect you from infection. But if you have a cut, sore, or insect bite, bacteria can get into the skin and spread to deeper tissues.
Some people can get cellulitis without having a break in the skin. These include older adults and people who have diabetes or a weak immune system.
At first, the infected area will be warm, red, swollen, and tender. As the infection spreads, you may have a fever, chills, and swollen glands.
While cellulite can occur anywhere on the body, in adults, it often occurs on the legs, face, or arms. In children, it is most common on the face or around the anus. An infection on the face, however, could lead to a dangerous eye infection.
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.
Disrupted areas of skin, such as where you’ve had recent surgery, psoriasis, cuts, puncture wounds, eczemas, chickenpox, shingles, fungal infection, an ulcer, athlete’s foot or dermatitis, serve as the most likely areas for bacteria to enter.
Certain types of insect or spider bites 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.
There are many other ways to get cellulitis. You can get it if you have:
- Certain medical conditions including peripheral arterial disease, chronic leukemia, HIV/AIDS, chronic kidney disease, liver disease and circulation disorders.
- Fluid buildup/swelling (edema/lymphedema) in the legs or arms, which can lead to cracks in the skin, making it easier for bacteria to enter the body.
- Had liposuction to remove excess fat.
- Been using medications such as corticosteroids.
- Injected illegal drugs into your skin.
Tests and Diagnosis
The appearance of your skin will help your doctor to 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 characterised 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
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 hospitalised and receive antibiotics through your veins (intravenously). Your doctor will choose an antibiotic based on your circumstances. Ensure the full course is taken to properly contain the problem.
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 bath.
- 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 entail:
- Inspecting your feet daily. Regularly check your feet for signs of injury so you can catch any infections early.
- Moisturising your skin regularly. Lubricating your skin helps prevent cracking and peeling.
- Trimming your fingernails and toenails carefully. Take care not to injure the surrounding skin.
- Protecting your hands and feet. Wear appropriate footwear and gloves (where required).
- Promptly treating 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.
When to see a doctor
If you have a rash that’s red, swollen, tender, warm, and it’s expanding, try to see your doctor the same day. If a fever or pain accompanies the rash, or the rash is changing rapidly, seek emergency care.
It’s important to identify and treat cellulitis early because the condition can cause a serious infection by spreading rapidly throughout your body. The infection can spread to the blood or lymph nodes and this can be deadly.
Your feet mirror your general health . . . cherish them!