Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that tends to occur in areas that have been damaged or inflamed. The affected area of the skin is red, hot, swollen and tender. There may also be discharge of fluid or pus. You may have a fever and feel unwell. Cellulitis can spread rapidly. It is a common cause for presentation to hospital accident and emergency departments, and may require a stay in hospital for intravenous antibiotics.
Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissues (just under the skin) caused by bacteria, usually staphylococcus aureus and group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus. These bacteria enter broken or normal skin and can spread easily to the tissue under the skin. This causes infection and you will need antibiotics to treat the infection.
Cellulitis can affect almost any part of the body. Most commonly, it occurs in areas that have been damaged or inflamed. Anyone, at any age, can develop cellulitis. However, you are at increased risk if you smoke or have diabetes or poor circulation.
Prior to the development of antibiotics, cellulitis was universally fatal. With the introduction of penicillin, most people recover fully within a week.
Symptoms of cellulitis
The range of symptoms can be mild to severe, and can include:
- redness of the skin
- tenderness or pain in an area of skin
- discharge, such as leaking yellow clear fluid or pus.
Spread of infection
The infection can spread to the rest of the body. The lymph nodes may swell and be noticed as a tender lump in the groin and armpit. You may also have fevers, sweats and vomiting.
Causes of cellulitis
Cellulitis usually occurs in skin areas that have been damaged or inflamed for other reasons, including:
- trauma, such as an insect bite, burn, abrasion or cut
- a surgical wound
- skin problems, such as eczema, psoriasis, scabies or acne
- a foreign object in the skin, such as metal or glass.
Diagnosis of cellulitis
Tests may include:
- swab – a swab is taken from the skin and sent to the laboratory for testing. It can take a few days to get a result and your doctor will be advised of the results
- other tests – such as blood tests and x-rays.
Treatment for cellulitis
Antibiotics are needed to treat the infection. Oral antibiotics are usually adequate, but in the severely ill person, intravenous antibiotics will be necessary to achieve rapid control and prevent further spread of the infection. This treatment is given in hospital or, sometimes, at home by a local doctor or nurse.
When the infection improves, you can be switched from intravenous to oral antibiotics that can be taken by mouth for a further week to 10 days. Most people respond to the antibiotics in two to three days and begin to show improvement. In rare cases, the cellulitis may progress to a serious illness by spreading to deeper tissues. In addition to broad spectrum antibiotics, surgery is often required and sometimes, admission to an intensive care unit.
Self-care at home
- Get plenty of rest. This gives your body a chance to fight the infection.
- Raise the area of the body involved as high as possible. This will ease the pain, help drainage and reduce swelling.
- Take pain-relieving medications such as paracetamol. Please check the label for how much to take and how often. The pain eases once the infection starts getting better.
- Be sure to take the full course of antibiotics.
- You may be advised to make a follow-up appointment with your doctor to make sure the cellulitis is improving. Don’t forget to do this.
Reduce the risk of transmission
Cellulitis is spread by skin-to-skin contact or by touching infected surfaces. Suggestions on how to reduce the risk of transmission in your household include:
- Wash your hands often.
- Bathe or shower daily.
- Cover the wound with a gauze dressing rather than a bandaid.
- Wash your bed linen, towels and clothing separately from those belonging to other family members while the infection is healing.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
Things to remember
- Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that tends to occur in areas that are damaged or inflamed.
- Treatment includes antibiotics.
- Reduce the risk of transmission by washing your hands, covering the wound with a gauze dressing, and washing your bed linen, towels and clothes separately from those belonging to other family members.
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Last reviewed: April 2014
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