Cellulitis is a skin infection that happens when bacteria enters the skin through a break or cut and spreads to deeper tissues. Mild cases of cellulitis are easily treated, but if the condition progresses it can lead to sepsis, a life-threatening infection.
Cellulitis is commonly seen when the skin’s protective barrier is broken due to cuts, bites, tattoos, piercings or other injuries. Even skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and fungal infections can cause breaks in the skin that allow germs in and lead to cellulitis.
Symptoms sometimes begin within hours, starting with redness, swelling, tenderness and warmth at the site. Lymph nodes may also swell and if the infection spreads, fever, chills, red streaks and confusion can occur.
Your dermatologist will easily recognize cellulitis, but a medical history and physical exam will likely be done. Skin markings may also be done so your doctor will know if cellulitis progresses. Other potential tests include cultures to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection and blood test to see if the infection has spread to the bloodstream. Sometimes, ultrasound, CT scans, MRI or bone scan may be done to rule out hidden abscesses or other serious complications.
Cellulitis is treated with antibiotics. Depending on the severity of the infection, these medications may be prescribed in pill form for oral use or, in more severe cases, they may be administered IV. Your dermatologist will tell you if wound dressings are needed.
Other ways to speed recovery and relieve symptoms include elevating the affected limb, applying warm compresses, and taking pain relievers as prescribed. In most cases, improvement is seen within 48 hours.
To prevent cellulitis, keep skin moisturized and cover arms and legs to protect them from injury when hiking or camping. Wear protective gear when playing sports and avoid going barefoot outdoors. Carefully clean all wounds with soap and water and don’t scratch or pick them. Wash hands immediately after handling poultry, eggs, fish or meat and inspect skin regularly for wounds.
Treating even minor wounds right away can help prevent cellulitis. Keep wounds clean and dry, apply antibiotic ointment and cover with a bandage. If you notice redness, swelling or other signs of infection, seek medical care.