What Is Cellulitis? Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Cellulitis is a common skin infection. It occurs when bacteria infect the deep layers of skin and the tissue under the skin. It’s painful, and if left untreated, can become serious and lead to hospitalizations.

Here’s what you need to know about this common infectious condition.

What Is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is an infection of the deep layers of the skin. It is one of the most common infections of the skin, and anyone can get it. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there are about 14.5 million cases in the U.S. every year.

Cellulitis can appear on different parts of the body. The first symptoms are usually swelling, redness, and warmth of the affected skin.

If left untreated, cellulitis can get worse. The infection can spread into the bloodstream through the lymph nodes, causing damage to your immune system. It can also move into bones and joints.

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What Causes Cellulitis?

Different types of organisms cause cellulitis. The most common are Staphylococcus (staph infection) and Streptococcus (strep infection). Most of these bacteria live on the skin and usually don’t cause problems.

Cellulitis can develop when bacteria enter the body through a break in the skin. That skin damage may result from:

  • A cut.
  • A bug bite.
  • Eczema.
  • Dry skin with deep cracks.
  • An injury where the skin has broken.
  • A surgical wound.
  • Chicken pox or shingles.
  • Injection drug use.
  • Athlete’s foot.
  • Puncture wounds.
  • Tattoos.
  • Piercings.

Risk Factors for Cellulitis

Anyone can get cellulitis, but people who can’t fight off infections for any reason are at greater risk. You’re more likely to develop cellulitis if you:

  • Are overweight.
  • Are middle-aged or older.
  • Have had cellulitis before.
  • Are diabetic, especially if your diabetes isn’t well controlled.
  • Have athlete’s foot.
  • Are undergoing chemotherapy, or are on any other medications that weaken the immune system
  • Have HIV or AIDS.
  • Have chronic kidney or liver disease.
  • Have lymphedema.
  • Had recent surgery.
  • Have poor circulation.
  • Have an immunodeficiency disorder.
  • Have any type of fungal infection on your toes.

Complications can develop if you don’t treat cellulitis. They include:

  • Infections in the blood, joints, or bones.
  • Infections in the lining of the chambers of the heart and heart valves.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis (in rare cases).

Cellulitis Symptoms and Diagnosis

Cellulitis can appear anywhere, but it’s most common in the legs and feet. Common symptoms of cellulitis include:

  • A red, painful rash.
  • A rash that occurs on one area of the body only (unilateral involvement).
  • Swelling and warmth around the rash.
  • Skin that looks pitted (like an orange peel).
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever and chills with any of the above symptoms.

More severe symptoms include:

  • Blisters around the rash.
  • Tender, swollen lymph nodes.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Low blood pressure.
  • Confusion or agitation.

Your doctor will diagnose cellulitis by doing a physical exam and closely examining your skin. In rare cases, they may need blood samples and other tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Cellulitis Treatment

Your doctor will prescribe antibiotics to treat your cellulitis. Treatment can range from 3 to 14 days, depending on the severity of the infection, given either by pill or through a vein in the hospital.

Cellulitis usually improves quickly. You may notice significant improvement in the first 48 to 72 hours, however, it’s very important to finish all your medication as prescribed. Finishing the course of antibiotics will kill all the bacteria that caused the cellulitis, and prevent any relapse from occurring.

Your doctor may advise you to keep the infected area elevated, such as by keeping your leg up on a pillow, to help reduce swelling.

How to Prevent Cellulitis

You can decrease your chances of getting cellulitis by following basic hygiene rules. For instance:

  • Clean all minor cuts and injuries with soap and water.
  • Cover any open or draining wound with a clean, dry bandage till it heals.
  • See a doctor for any puncture wound.
  • If you have an open wound, avoid hot tubs, swimming pools, and natural bodies of water like oceans and lakes.
  • Wash your hands often, especially after using the bathroom.
  • If you can’t wash your hands, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • If you’re diabetic, check your feet daily for signs of injury or infection.

Most people recover from cellulitis without any lasting problems. However, you should always see your doctor if you have symptoms of cellulitis.

CDC, Cellulitis: All You Need to Know, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Cellulitis: Overview, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Cellulitis: Signs and Symptoms, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Cellulitis: Who Gets and Causes, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Cellulitis: Diagnosis and Treatment, Link

American Academy of Dermatology, Cellulitis: How to Prevent It From Returning, Link

JAMA Dermatology, Cellulitis, Link

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.