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Cellulitis: What to Know About This Skin Infection

If you get a minor scrape, rash or bug bite, you probably don’t think too much about it. Usually, these kinds of minor skin irritations heal on their own. But sometimes, your skin and the tissue under it can develop a common bacterial infection called cellulitis. 

“Your skin is one of your best barriers to infection,” said Matthew Cook, DO, a family medicine specialist at Banner Health Clinic in San Tan Valley, AZ. “It keeps bugs and viruses out of your body and bloodstream. But when that barrier is broken by rash, insect bite, puncture wound, injury or other irritation, bacteria can enter that break in the skin and cause an infection.”

Here, Dr. Cook shares what you should know about cellulitis.

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

It’s normal to see redness or darkness when you injure your skin. But if cellulitis sets in, the red or dark area may spread out from the point of injury. In fact, if you visit a health care professional for cellulitis, they may draw a line around the affected area to see if it is getting worse over time.

Along with discoloration, your skin may swell and feel warm or tender. You could have a fever. And you may see an area that contains pus, or you may have pus draining from the site. 

Signs of infection getting more serious include chills, fatigue, dizziness and muscle aches. And if cellulitis spreads to other parts of your body, you might feel tired and develop blisters or red or brown streaks on the skin.

“Most of the time, cellulitis occurs on the arms and legs or around a wound, but it can happen anywhere, including the eyes,” Dr. Cook said.

If you notice any signs of cellulitis, see a health care professional. It’s crucial to treat cellulitis, since otherwise the infection can spread to your blood, muscles or bones, and in those cases, you may need to be hospitalized for treatment. 

How can you prevent cellulitis?

You can’t guarantee that you won’t get this bacterial skin infection. But you can lower your odds by keeping your skin and nails healthy, using moisturizer on dry skin to prevent cracks, and covering your skin when there’s a risk of minor injury, such as when you’re doing yard work.

If you scratch or injure your skin, try to keep germs away — clean the area, apply antibiotic ointment and keep it covered until it heals. If you’re recovering from surgery, follow your doctor’s instructions for cleaning the incision site, since there’s a risk of developing cellulitis as you’re healing.

People at a higher risk of cellulitis include those with skin conditions such as athlete’s foot or eczema, since they make your skin prone to cracking. Controlling these conditions can help lower your risk.

Some chronic conditions including heart disease, poor circulation, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle or having a weakened immune system are risk factors. You can lower your risk by taking any medications as directed and seeing your doctor regularly.

Cellulitis is not contagious, so you don’t have to worry about getting it through contact with another person.

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

A health care professional can diagnose cellulitis by looking at your skin, performing a physical exam and taking a medical history. If you have a severe case, your doctor may take a culture from the infected area or your blood to check for bacteria. A common type of bacteria that can cause cellulitis is Stretococcus (strep).

Cellulitis can sometimes look like other health conditions. “For example, chronic leg swelling can cause redness that can be confused with cellulitis,” Dr. Cook said. An area of red skin could also look like dermatitis, a rash typically not caused by bacteria.

How is cellulitis treated?

If you have cellulitis, you’ll need to take prescribed antibiotics. Most of the time, they will be oral antibiotics, but in more severe cases, you could need intravenous (IV) antibiotics. Typically, you should feel better within a week to 10 days after starting a course of antibiotics. It's important to rest until your symptoms improve.

Here are a few tips to help reduce pain and swelling:

  • Apply a cool, damp cloth to the affected area whenever necessary to provide relief.
  • Ask your doctor for recommendations on over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication.
  • Elevate the affected body part to reduce swelling.
  • Ask your doctor whether wearing compression wraps or stockings could be beneficial.

The bottom line

Cellulitis is a common skin infection. If you develop it, you may notice redness or darkness that spreads, and your skin may swell or feel warm. See a health care professional if you notice signs of cellulitis, since it’s easily treatable with antibiotics. Untreated, it can spread to other parts of your body. If you would like to talk to a health care professional about caring for your skin, reach out to Banner Health.

Other useful articles:

Dermatology Infectious Disease