Cellulitis Causes and Effective Treatments

Cellulitis is a common but potentially deadly skin infection. It affects over 14 million people a year in the United States. Cellulitis can be treated successfully with early medical intervention.

Key takeaways:
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    Cellulitis is an infection in the deeper parts of the skin.
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    It usually appears on the legs and feet.
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    You can prevent cellulitis by taking prompt care of all wounds.
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    Most cases of cellulitis are treated with oral antibiotics and wound care.
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    Prompt medical treatment is required to prevent it from spreading and causing death.

What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection in the deep layers of the skin. It is commonly caused by bacteria, such as Staphylococcus or Streptococcus. Recently, there has been an increase in cases of cellulitis caused by MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). These bacteria can enter through any opening in the skin, such as a cut or puncture.

Cellulitis has a predilection for the legs or feet, but it can occur anywhere on the body.

Who is at risk for cellulitis?

Certain medical conditions and medications can make patients more susceptible to cellulitis.

  • Immunosuppression, such as HIV, cancer, and transplants
  • Medications, such as prednisone or cyclosporine
  • Lymphedema
  • Surgical sites
  • Ulcers
  • Chronic skin conditions, such as eczema
  • Open skin from puncture wounds, cuts, or scrapes
  • Diabetes
  • If you had cellulitis before
  • Poor circulation, such as venous insufficiency
  • Obesity
  • Liver or kidney disease
  • Elderly
  • IV drug use
  • Alcoholism

What are the signs and symptoms of cellulitis?

There are some warning signs to look for if you think you have cellulitis. If you have any of these, see your doctor immediately.

  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness or pain
  • Warmth
  • Pus
  • Blisters
  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Dizziness
  • Swollen lymph nodes

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose cellulitis based on your physical exam. However, lab tests or cultures may be needed to accurately diagnose the bacteria involved.

How is cellulitis treated?

Cellulitis is treated with oral antibiotics and proper hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water before caring for your wound, and wear disposable gloves. It is vital to perform daily wound care, including cleaning the wound and applying antibiotic ointment and a bandage. Wound care will keep it clean and protected while it is healing. Do not touch the wound.

Avoid open bodies of water, such as oceans and lakes, while your wound is healing. Open bodies of water contain lots of bacteria that can easily enter through an opening in the skin.

Keep your legs elevated and avoid strenuous activities while you are healing. Some patients may benefit from compression stockings or bandages.

If the infection has progressed, you may need intravenous (IV) antibiotics in the hospital. IV antibiotics are reserved for advanced cases of cellulitis. Watch out for increased redness and swelling of the wound that is not improving after 2-3 days of antibiotics. This could indicate your cellulitis is worsening.

What happens if I do not treat cellulitis?

Prompt and effective medical treatment of cellulitis is critical to prevent the worsening of the condition. If it has spread and advanced through large areas of the skin, you may need intravenous antibiotics in the hospital.

Cellulitis should not be ignored. If it spreads to the bloodstream and causes bacteremia and sepsis, you could die. It can spread to the bone causing osteomyelitis, which can lead to amputation, or to the heart leading to endocarditis, which can be fatal. In rare cases, the bacteria can spread into the fascia covering the muscle resulting in necrotizing fasciitis, which has a very high mortality rate.

Can I prevent cellulitis?

Here are some steps to prevent cellulitis.

  • Proper hygiene for all cuts or scrapes - Keep the area clean and apply antibiotic ointment and a bandage daily.
  • Stay out of oceans, pools, hot tubs, lakes, and rivers if you have open wounds.
  • Examine your skin daily to look for open wounds.
  • Do not pick or scratch at your skin.
  • Moisturize your skin daily to prevent dry cracking skin that can allow entry of bacteria.
  • Protect your skin when doing activities that might lead to a cut or abrasion, such as yardwork.
  • Keep fingernails and toenails short.
  • Wash hands regularly with soap and water.

Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection in the skin, usually on the legs and feet. Some patients are prone to getting it. It is vital to take care of all wounds immediately to prevent cellulitis. If you do show signs of cellulitis, see your doctor immediately. Prompt treatment can prevent hospitalization and death.


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