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Cellulitis: A Rash That Needs Treatment

Know the symptoms of cellulitis so you can get treated fast.
An illustration from a side profile of a woman wearing a light blue towel sitting with her legs stretched out but slightly bent in front of her. Her skin is light peach-toned and there is a darker splotch on her right calf that she is examining. The splotch has lighter squiggly lines within it. She is frowning and has one hand on her right thigh. Her light orange hair is tied up in a ponytail with a light blue hair tie.
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Written by William Fix, MD.
Resident in Dermatology, Montefiore Med Ctr/Einstein-NY
Last updated February 28, 2024

Cellulitis quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have cellulitis.

Care Plan


First steps to consider

  • If you have cellulitis—a red, swollen, painful area of your skin—you should see your healthcare provider right away for treatment, which usually includes antibiotics.
  • While waiting for an appointment, you can relieve pain by taking OTC pain medication and, if the skin infection is on a limb, keeping it elevated.
See care providers

Emergency Care

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Go to the ER if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Confusion
  • Severe pain
  • Blistering of the skin
  • Color change of the skin to a purple brown color

Cellulitis quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have cellulitis.

Take cellulitis quiz

What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that affects the soft tissue beneath the skin. It typically occurs when bacteria enter the skin through small cuts, scrapes, or other skin injuries. While cellulitis can occur anywhere on the body, it is most commonly found on the legs.

When you have cellulitis, you may notice a red, swollen rash that spreads quickly and has indistinct borders. The affected area may feel warm and tender to the touch, and you may experience pain or discomfort. Other symptoms of cellulitis include fever, fatigue, and a rapid heart rate.

How is cellulitis treated?

If you suspect that you have cellulitis, it is important to see a doctor promptly. Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to help clear the infection. In the meantime, you can take steps to manage your symptoms, such as elevating the affected limb, applying warm compresses, and taking over-the-counter pain relievers.

Most cases of cellulitis will heal within a few days to a week of starting antibiotics. However, it is important to finish the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed by your doctor to prevent the infection from returning.

Cellulitis symptoms

Pro Tip

Be sure to let your doctor know if you have significant pain, fever, malaise, or other systemic symptoms. Or if your skin blisters or turns black. —Dr. Mollie MacCormack

Cellulitis often looks like a red or purplish area of the skin. You may notice a small cut or wound in the area, but not always. This may have been where the bacteria entered the skin. The area of cellulitis will probably feel hot to the touch and painful. It may also feel firm or swollen. Sometimes, blisters form on the surface.

With more serious cases, you may also have bodywide symptoms, like a fever, chills, muscle aches, tender and enlarged lymph nodes, rapid heart rate, fast breathing, low blood pressure, and overall weakness.

There are other inflammatory and infectious skin conditions that may seem similar to cellulitis. For example, deep venous thrombosis, lyme disease, insect bites, drug reactions, contact dermatitis, among others. Cellulitis is more likely to be red, hot, firm, and painful with poorly defined borders.

Main symptoms

  • Redness
  • Ill-defined borders
  • Hot to the touch
  • Painful
  • Firm or swollen compared to surrounding area
  • Blisters or bruising
  • Fevers, chills, fast heart rate, generally feeling bad (malaise)
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Occurs on one side of the body
  • Most commonly involves the leg

Other symptoms you may have

Left untreated, cellulitis can progress and turn into a very serious condition. More severe infections, such as necrotizing fasciitis, gas gangrene, and toxic shock syndrome, can also be confused with cellulitis in their early stages.

Go to the emergency department if you develop any of the following symptoms:

  • Crackling sensation felt under the infected skin
  • Dark brown discharge from a wound
  • Extreme pain
  • No pain, and instead numbness
  • Purplish-grey skin color

Cellulitis quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have cellulitis.

Take cellulitis quiz

Causes of cellulitis

Bacteria live on the surface of our skin. Normally, it doesn’t cause any harm. But when you get a cut, bite, needle puncture, or some other kind of abrasion, bacteria can get into the deeper layers of skin and cause infection.

Many different types of bacteria can cause cellulitis. The most common types are:

  • Group A Streptococcus: This is the bacteria that causes strep throat. It’s also the most common cause of cellulitis.
  • Staphylococcus Aureus (Staph): This is the second most common cause.
  • Methycillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA): This is a group of staph bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics. Cellulitis from MRSA is harder to treat.
  • Pseudomonas: This is more likely to affect diabetics and those in hospitals.

There’s a more superficial type of cellulitis, called erysipelas, that affects the upper layer of the dermis (below the outer layer of skin) and tends to occur on the legs and face. It is more likely to have bodywide symptoms early on, the redness is more intense and more sharply defined, and it can progress rapidly.

Cellulitis treatment

A doctor will take your medical history and do a physical exam. They may mark the area that is red, so they can monitor its progression. Tests that may be ordered include blood tests, testing the fluid in your skin, or a skin biopsy (if they are uncertain about the diagnosis).

Cellulitis is treated with oral antibiotics. However, you may have to be hospitalized and given antibiotics through an intravenous (IV) line if you are very sick, have a compromised immune system, have had antibiotics and are not responding, or the cellulitis involves the face (especially around the eye).

Though antibiotics normally start working within a few days, it’s important to finish all of them to make sure the infection is completely gone.

Ready to treat your cellulitis?

We show you only the best treatments for your condition and symptoms—all vetted by our medical team. And when you’re not sure what’s wrong, Buoy can guide you in the right direction.See all treatment options
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Risk factors for cellulitis

Dr. Rx

Tinea pedis (Athlete’s foot) may predispose you to developing cellulitis due to breakdown of skin between the toes. —Dr. MacCormack

Cellulitis is most likely to occur after trauma to the skin. This includes a cut or scrape, an insect or animal bite, having an IV or medical device placement, or incisions to the skin during surgery. Skin between the toes that is white and wrinkly (macerated), typically caused by tinea pedis (athlete’s foot), can also allow bacteria to enter the skin.

A weakened immune system also increases the risk of cellulitis. This includes people with immunosuppressive diseases (like diabetes, cancer, or AIDS) or those on immunosuppressive medications.

Also, conditions that affect blood flow to your arms or legs—like peripheral artery disease, venous insufficiency, deep vein thrombosis, and previous vein harvesting—may keep wounds from healing properly. This increases your chances of getting cellulitis, especially in the legs.

Cellulitis quiz

Take a quiz to find out if you have cellulitis.

Take cellulitis quiz

Next steps

If you think you have cellulitis, see your primary care doctor right away or go to urgent care or the emergency department.

Pro Tip

Ask your doctor: What should I do if my infection is spreading or becoming increasingly painful? —Dr. MacCormack

If you are having fevers, chills, changes in heart rate, or malaise, go straight to the emergency room. The infection is treatable, but should be started as soon as possible. This is especially urgent for people with diabetes, compromised immune systems, vascular disease, or other high risk conditions. If left untreated, cellulitis can become dangerous and can result in the loss of a limb or even be fatal.

As soon as you notice the rash, outline it with a permanent marker. It will help the doctor know if and how fast it is spreading.


Since cellulitis is from bacteria entering the skin, it’s important to thoroughly clean and bandage all cuts and abrasions. Keep any openings in the skin clean, dry, and covered.

Good hand hygiene also helps prevent cellulitis. Keep hands clean by washing with soap and water regularly.

Treating diseases that make you more likely to get cellulitis, like diabetes and peripheral artery disease, is important. People with these diseases should also practice excellent foot hygiene to minimize risk of skin injury. They should also try to reduce the chances of getting a cut on their feet in the first place, by wearing shoes and socks.

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The stories shared below are not written by Buoy employees. Buoy does not endorse any of the information in these stories. Whenever you have questions or concerns about a medical condition, you should always contact your doctor or a healthcare provider.
Only going to a shop for a tattoo nowPosted July 6, 2020 by S.
So my birthday is in 2 days. I decided to call my tattoo friend over for a tattoo party. Mine went easy and was the first and only one done that night. It was a cover-up from an old tattoo on my wrist and I was extremely pleased with how it looked. However, it stung even well after it was done. The following morning I washed it, went to work, and came back home. It was still stinging and stiff. I left it alone for a few hours, figuring it was healing. Went to bed at 10:30—woke up at 3 in excruciating pain. My wrist felt like I needed to just chop off my hand right above the tattoo, which was swollen and red all over. My veins were colored from the ink and u could see them heading up my arm. Woke up my husband and friend and went to the closest ER. Doc only looked at it for a minute and said it's infected. Omg. My worst fear ever—an infected tattoo. CELLULITIS: Immediately they started an IV line with antibiotics and antihistamines (in case of allergic reaction). They sent me home with more antibiotics and a steroid pill to help it fight off the infection. Today is only the end of day 1 of treatment so I'll come back here to keep this updated on the progress.
Dr. MacCormack is a board-certified dermatologist and the Director of Mohs Surgery / Procedural Dermatology for Solution Health. She graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University and attended the University of Massachusetts Medical School where she was elected to the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society and received both the Janet M. Glasgow Memorial Award and Janet M. Glasgow American M...
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