Cellulitis Symptoms, Causes & Treatment Options

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and the tissues just beneath the skin that can be mild, require antibiotics, or be life- or limb-threatening. It can be caused by bacteria commonly found on the skin or more dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

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Contents

  1. Overview
  2. Symptoms
  3. Potential Causes
  4. Treatment, Prevention and Relief
  5. When to Seek Further Consultation
  6. References

What Is Cellulitis?

Summary

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin that can track into the connective tissue, fat, and muscle underneath the skin. If the bacteria that causes the infection is resistant to the body’s defenses, it can spread and cause damage to limbs and organs. If it is resistant to antibiotics, it can be very difficult to treat and may even become life-threatening [1].

Symptoms include skin changes in the form of redness, swelling, tenderness, and pus, immobility or pain and swelling in the affected body parts, and fever and chills.

Cellulitis is often treated with supportive care and antibiotics. Your healthcare provider may address swollen areas with pus via a drainage procedure. Medical treatment is necessary to prevent more severe illness, even if the infection seems minor at first.

Recommended care

Cellulitis Symptoms

Main symptoms

Hot, red, swollen, and pus-filled areas of skin are common in skin infections (cellulitis). In severe infections, the bacteria tracks into the skin and eventually the bloodstream, leading to systemic infection and symptoms of fever, shaking and chills.

  • Skin changes: Skin infections in cellulitis usually involve a large and quickly progressing area of redness, swelling, tenderness, and in some cases, pus. These are signs of skin infection.
  • Immobility: Pain and swelling may make the affected body part difficult to move and are common symptoms of cellulitis. Immobility may signify an increased risk of damage to underlying structures.
  • Fever and chills: If the infection finds its way into the blood, it can cause fever and chills as the body attempts to fight the infection. This can cause severe sickness and even death.

Cellulitis Causes

Essentially, cellulitis is due to bacteria infiltrating the skin and then spreading into deeper layers of tissue — in severe cases, into the blood. Different bacteria can and do cause cellulitis and certain conditions can increase the risk of developing cellulitis [2].

Skin breaks

One of the primary risk factors for the development of cellulitis are diseases that affect the skin’s ability to act as a barrier to bacteria. These disorders include skin diseases such as eczema and other diseases that affect the skin, like fungal infections (e.g. athlete’s foot), diabetes, IV drug use, and multiple bug bites.

  • Fungal infections: Fungal infections like tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) or tinea cruris (jock itch) can cause breaks in the skin as the fungus feeds on both dead and healthy skin. These skin breaks can open the skin and allow infection.
  • Eczema: Eczema is a skin condition that causes inflammation of the skin on the face, arms, and legs. It can also be severely itchy. The scratching from eczema can break the skin and introduce bacteria to the skin that can cause cellulitis.

Systemic conditions

Conditions that affect the whole body are also common causes of cellulitis. Some of these causes include diabetes, substance abuse disorder, and peripheral vascular disorder.

  • Diabetes/Peripheral vascular disorder: Diabetes and peripheral vascular disease (PVD) allow bacteria to enter the skin because each alters and reduces blood flow to the skin, reducing the skin’s ability to fight infection. Each condition can cause ulcers that open the skin to the outside world.
  • Substance abuse disorder: Substance abuse disorder, especially those disorders that involve the use of IV drugs, greatly increase the risk of developing severe skin infections. In some cases, these disorders may cause individuals to lose safe housing or housing in general. This further increases the risk of exposure to bug bites and a lack of access to regular hygiene products or facilities.

Immunosuppression

For individuals suffering from cancer, severe HIV/AIDS, or other conditions that may cause immune suppression, cellulitis can develop more easily because the body has a greatly reduced ability to defend itself from infection.

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Treatment Options, Relief, and Prevention for Cellulitis

Treatment

Cellulitis is treated most commonly through supportive care and antibiotics. In mild cases, any visible pus can be drained (sometimes in the operating room) and a prescription for oral antibiotics can treat the disease. In many cases intravenous (IV) antibiotics are necessary. It is very important to receive proper treatment for cellulitis, because it can enter the bloodstream or nearby structures like muscle, tendons, or bone, threatening death or amputation.

Prevention

Cellulitis is common but can be greatly reduced using common hygiene techniques. Wash your hands, bathe regularly, and use proper cleaning techniques at work and home. In cases of systemic illness, proper wound care and wound cleaning can greatly reduce the chance of cellulitis.

When to Seek Further Consultation for Cellulitis

If you have a persistent rash that is enlarging in size or are experiencing fever and chills along with a new-onset rash with swelling, redness, and pain, you should seek immediate medical care.

References

  1. Cellulitis. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated June 12, 2019. MedlinePlus Link

  2. Erysipelas and cellulitis: Overview. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Updated Feb. 22, 2018. NCBI Link

  3. Patient FACTS: Cellulitis and Soft Tissue Infections. American College of Physicians. Published 2016. ACP Link