What is cellulitis?

The best antibiotic to treat cellulitis include dicloxacillin, cephalexin, trimethoprim with sulfamethoxazole, clindamycin, or doxycycline antibiotics.
The best antibiotic to treat cellulitis include dicloxacillin, cephalexin, trimethoprim with sulfamethoxazole, clindamycin, or doxycycline antibiotics.

Cellulitis is a deep skin infection that spreads quickly. It is a common skin condition, but it can be serious if you don’t treat cellulitis early with an antibiotic.

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:

  • Red 
  • Hot
  • Swollen
  • Blistered
  • Painful
  • Tender
  • Pitted, like an orange peel
  • Streaked red
  • Black

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:

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.

Cellulitis can sometimes look like a blood clot in the leg, a condition called deep vein thrombosis. Your doctor may need to do extra tests if symptoms appear in your leg to determine their cause.

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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.

Medications

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:

  • Pain relievers and fever reducers, such as ibuprofen
  • Antiseptic cream to clean cuts and wounds

Home care

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

The best way to prevent cellulitis is through good hygiene and wound care practices. These include:

  • Keeping skin clean
  • Moisturizing skin to prevent cracks
  • Wearing proper footwear
  • Cleaning wounds and cuts
  • Wearing gloves while working outside

Alternative therapies

You should not treat cellulitis with alternative therapies alone. Cellulitis can be very serious and potentially life-threatening, so you will need antibiotics.

Your doctor may recommend alternative therapies alongside antibiotics to strengthen a weak immune system, or if you have antibiotic-resistant bacteria. These may include herbs or supplements such as:

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.

Surgery

If you have an infected abscess, you may need minor surgery to drain the pus.

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.

All about cellulitis - causes, symptoms and treatments

Cellulitis is a type of skin infection caused by bacteria. It is a common but serious skin condition that needs urgent medical attention. In the United States, cellulitis affects around 14.5 million cases each year. Cellulitis can occur anywhere on the skin. In adults, however, the leg is commonly affected. Children usually get cellulitis on their face or neck. Cellulitis involves a deep bacterial infection affecting the deep layers of the skin and tissue underneath. Untreated cellulitis can spread to the deeper tissues through the blood and become life-threatening.

Cellulitis usually begins as a red and swollen skin. The affected area feels warm and painful to touch. Cellulitis may affect the normal skin, although it is usually preceded by a skin break or crack including the ones caused by an injury or surgery.

Who is at a risk for cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a common condition and may affect anyone regardless of age or gender. Because cellulitis involves the entry of bacteria through a breach in the skin, keeping wounds clean and covered with a bandage can reduce the risk of cellulitis.

Conditions that reduce a person’s immunity make them vulnerable to get cellulitis. Some of the risk factors for cellulitis are as follows:

  • Being middle-aged or older
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Having diabetes, especially when it is poorly controlled
  • Having skin conditions such as eczema

What causes cellulitis?

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria that may infect the skin at places where it is broken or cracked. Bacteria usually cause cellulitis by entering a wound, scratch, or cut on the skin. Cellulitis may also follow an insect bite or an exposed hair root.

The bacteria that most commonly cause cellulitis are as follows:

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

Cellulitis typically begins as red, tense, and swollen skin. The symptoms of cellulitis include:

You must seek immediate medical help if:

  • There is a high fever.
  • The affected area is large and inflamed.
  • You get fever, chills, or cold sweats.
  • You get nausea or vomiting.
  • There is drowsiness, confusion, or trouble concentrating.
  • You get swollen nodes.
  • There are palpitations (a rapid heart rate)
  • You feel difficulty in breathing.
  • If the affected area has numbness or tingling.
  • The pain is intense.
  • The skin appears bluish/black.
  • Cellulitis affects the area around your eye(s) or behind the ear(s).
  • You have long-term medical conditions such as diabetes or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

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How is cellulitis treated?

Cellulitis is a serious condition, and a healthcare provider must be consulted for proper treatment. Depending on your age, overall health, and severity of the condition, your doctor will provide the appropriate treatment for you.

Cellulitis treatment includes:

  • Antibiotics (oral, intramuscular [injection], or intravenous [IV])
  • Cool, wet dressings on the infection site
  • Keeping the affected area clean and dry 
  • Keeping the affected part elevated
  • Surgery (in some cases)
  • Rest
  • Topical (over the skin) antibiotics
  • Pain medications
  • Treatment of the underlying condition such as diabetes, eczema, or athlete’s foot (a fungal infection that usually begins between the toes)

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Medically Reviewed on 3/1/2022
References
American Academy of Dermatology Association: "Cellulitis: Overview."

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cellulitis: All You Need to Know."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cellulitis."

Merck Manual: "Cellulitis."

National Health Service: "Cellulitis."

St. Luke's Hospital: "Cellulitis."