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Cellulitis: Causes, symptoms and treatment

Cellulitis is a common bacterial skin infection that typically affects the arms and legs. However, it can affect other parts of your body. Cellulitis can potentially become life-threatening if left untreated. Here’s what you need to know about the causes, treatment and prevention of cellulitis.

What causes cellulitis?

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria entering the body through openings in the skin. Two types of bacteria, staphylococcus (staph) and streptococcus (strep), are the most common culprits.

Cellulitis is rarely contagious. However, it’s possible to get cellulitis from an infected person’s open wound through skin-to-skin contact.

Signs and symptoms of cellulitis

Cellulitis often starts with skin irritation, swelling and redness in the affected area. Other symptoms of cellulitis may include:

  • pain
  • a skin abscess or bump under the skin
  • a warm sensation in the infected area
  • fatigue
  • tenderness
  • blisters
  • a fever

Risk factors

Some people have a greater risk of getting cellulitis.

Risk factors for cellulitis include:

  • Age. Older adults are more likely to develop cellulitis because the skin, immune system and circulation weaken with age. People of all ages should practice healthy habits to boost the immune system and improve circulation
  • Existing skin conditions. Atopic dermatitis (eczema), athlete’s foot and other skin conditions may allow bacteria to enter openings in the skin. Eczema and cellulitis may look the same because both conditions can cause skin irritation and inflammation. Talk with a dermatologist to manage your skin conditions and prevent cellulitis.
  • A weakened immune system. People who have diabetes, cancer, HIV or other medical conditions that weaken the immune system are more prone to cellulitis. A weakened immune system makes it harder to fend off invading bacteria. People with diabetes should monitor their feet for broken skin or signs of a bacterial infection.
  • Injury or surgery. Open wounds and surgical incisions increase your risk of skin infections like cellulitis. Some injuries can put you at a higher risk of cellulitis than others. For example, contact your health care provider if you have an animal bite, step on a nail, get dirt in a wound, have frostbite or other high-risk injuries.
  • Obesity. Cellulitis is more likely to occur in people who are overweight. Obesity makes it more challenging to recover from skin infections. Make healthy lifestyle changes and consider a weight management program to support your health goals.
  • Swelling. Excess fluid (edema) in the arms or legs can increase your risk of cellulitis. Minimize edema or excess fluid with compression socks or sleeves. Elevating an arm or leg above the rest of the body to let fluid “sink” to lower parts of the body may help reduce the risk of cellulitis.

Treating cellulitis

Cellulitis can be treated by your primary care provider or a dermatologist. They may prescribe oral antibiotics, which often clear the infection in seven to 10 days. While rare, serious cases of cellulitis may require hospitalization and intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Practice proper wound care and get enough rest during your recovery. If the cellulitis infection affects your arm or leg, keep your limb elevated to decrease swelling and ensure your recovery stays on track.

Contact your health care provider if:

  • any of your symptoms continue even after you have finished taking your antibiotic prescription
  • your symptoms become worse
  • you develop new symptoms

How to prevent cellulitis

There are several ways to reduce your risk of cellulitis:

  • Stick to a healthy skin routine. Use moisturizer to prevent and treat itchy, dry or cracked skin that could be vulnerable to bacteria.

  • Trim your nails. Fingernails are a popular hangout for bacteria. Keep them short to avoid scratches that could introduce bacteria into your skin.

  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands frequently to kill bacteria and prevent cellulitis infections, especially before treating a wound.

  • Treat your wounds. Clean your cuts, blisters, scrapes or any open wounds with soap and water as soon as possible. Use over-the-counter antibiotic ointment as directed by your health care provider and apply a dry bandage to create a barrier against harmful bacteria.

  • Leave treated wounds alone. Wounds may feel itchy as your skin heals, but it’s important not to pick, scratch or touch the affected area to avoid introducing new bacteria and developing a more serious infection.

  • Monitor healing. As your wound heals, look for signs of infection, such as pain, swelling, redness, odor, warmth, or a green or yellow discharge.

  • Skip the dip. Avoid hot tubs, swimming pools, lakes and other bodies of water if you have an open wound.

 

When to seek emergency care

Seek medical attention right away for serious injuries that break the skin, such as a deep cut or puncture wound. If left untreated, cellulitis can become serious and life-threatening because the skin infection can quickly spread throughout your body.

Treatment for cellulitis shouldn’t wait. You can visit an urgent care clinic or schedule a same-day provider visit for most symptoms of cellulitis.

However, you should visit a nearby emergency room right away if you have any of these severe symptoms:

  • a fever of 100.4° or higher
  • nausea and vomiting
  • increased pain
  • the infected area expands, hardens or becomes numb
  • you have uncontrolled, “teeth-chattering” shaking (called rigors)

 

 

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