Cellulitis: Types, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

By Alicia Wooldridge, MD
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July 22, 2022

Do you have a painful, swollen patch of redness on your skin that doesn’t seem to be going away?

There’s a chance that you’re dealing with cellulitis, a common bacterial skin infection that affects adults and children alike. 

Though common, cellulitis can become serious when left untreated or when it’s not treated properly.

That’s why it’s important to learn about cellulitis and get your symptoms checked out by a doctor if you think you may have it.

In this article, we go in depth on everything you need to know about cellulitis—including what it is, what it looks like, how you get it, how you get rid of it, and how to prevent it in the first place.

We also touch on who is most at risk for cellulitis and what complications can arise if you don’t take proper care.

What Is Cellulitis? 

Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that causes pain, redness, and swelling at the site of infection.

The infection impacts the deeper layers of the skin and can be caused by a number of different types of bacteria, though the most common is group A Streptococcus, or group A strep. 

Cellulitis is quite common, with over 14 million cases in the U.S. annually.

Most cases will go away with self-care and antibiotics.

However, if not treated properly, cellulitis can lead to serious complications that will need immediate medical attention. 

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Types

There are several types of cellulitis, which are differentiated simply by where they are located on the body.

In adults, cellulitis appears most often on the feet or legs, while in children, it appears most often on the face or neck.

However, it can appear anywhere on the body.

Other common types of cellulitis include:

Cellulitis is rarely bilateral, meaning it rarely affects both sides of the body at the same time. 

Causes 

As previously mentioned, cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that can be caused by a number of different types of bacteria entering the body.

The most common types of bacteria that cause cellulitis are ​​Staphylococcus and Streptococcus.

Bacteria can enter the body through a number of different breaks in the skin.

This includes skin injuries like cuts, scratches, bug bites, surgical wounds, and burns as well as any small cracks in the skin, such as those from eczema, dry skin, or athlete’s foot

Of course, not everyone who has a skin injury will get cellulitis, as the immune system works hard to destroy foreign bacteria.

Cellulitis develops when the immune response is not strong enough to combat the bacteria, for whatever reason. 

In general, cellulitis is not contagious—you do not catch it from others who are infected.  

Signs & Symptoms 

The affected area typically presents as a red, swollen patch of skin that is painful, tender, hard, and warm to the touch.

The affected skin may also appear pitted/dimpled (like the peel of an orange) or glossy, and it can be difficult to tell where the redness ends and normal-looking skin begins. 

In more severe cases, blisters may appear on the affected skin, which can ooze and then scab over.

You may also see a streak of red coming from the area, an open wound, a pus-filled bump, or nearby swollen glands.

Many people begin to feel ill before the redness begins with symptoms of an infection, including fever, chills, and fatigue.

In severe cases, you may also experience sweating, nausea, drowsiness, rapid heart rate, low blood pressure, and trouble concentrating. 

Diagnosis

There’s no one simple test that can determine whether or not you have cellulitis—instead, your doctor will generally make a diagnosis by examining the affected area and asking you a series of questions.

Be sure to tell your doctor about any recent injuries, any medical conditions, and any medications you take in order to help them provide you with the best treatment plan.

If your doctor does not feel confident enough to diagnose cellulitis over some other type of skin condition, they may either refer you to a dermatologist for a more definitive diagnosis or send off a sample from the infected area for a wound culture, which can determine what bacteria is causing the infection. 

Treatment 

Cellulitis is treated in two main ways: antibiotics and self-care.

Antibiotics

Oral antibiotics are the gold standard for getting rid of cellulitis effectively and efficiently.

The type of antibiotic you take will depend on the type of bacteria causing your cellulitis.

Some people will also need more than one antibiotic. 

How long you need to take the antibiotic will also vary from case to case, but five to 14 days is standard.

As always, it’s important to take your antibiotic as prescribed and for as long as prescribed, even if the infection appears to go away, in order for the infection to be fully treated.

People with severe cellulitis or cellulitis of the face may be administered antibiotics via intravenous (IV) therapy.

In this case, a hospital stay is typically required and can last around a week. 

Self-care

Paired with the proper antibiotics, cellulitis should be treated at home through self-care.

This means proper wound care (it’s important to cover the wound and change the bandage frequently); resting to allow your body to heal; treating other conditions that may progress to cellulitis, like athlete’s foot or eczema; and keeping the body part affected by cellulitis elevated to reduce swelling. 

Self-care is a necessary part of cellulitis treatment, but it is not enough on its own.

Do not skip going to the doctor for antibiotics in favor of treating yourself at home—there’s a good chance the infection will continue to spread, putting your health in danger.

Risk Factors for Cellulitis 

Anyone can develop cellulitis, but there are certain groups of people that have a higher risk of developing it.

This is because they have conditions or situations that make it easier for bacteria to enter their body or that cause their bodies to be unequipped to fight off the bacteria.

This includes people who:

  • Have eczema or athlete’s foot
  • Have had cellulitis in the past
  • Are undergoing chemotherapy
  • Have HIV or AIDS
  • Are taking corticosteroids
  • Have long-term liver or kidney disease
  • Have had recent surgery
  • Are prone to injury (such as children, athletes, military members, and IV drug users)
  • Have poor circulation

Complications of Cellulitis

Most people recover from cellulitis with no subsequent issues, but it is possible for some serious complications to occur.

Some rare, but potential, complications are as follows:

  • Bacteremia: infection of the blood
  • Osteomyelitis: infection of the bones
  • Suppurative arthritis: infection of the joints
  • Endocarditis: infection of the linings of the heart chambers and/or valves
  • Thrombophlebitis: vein swelling due to blood clots
  • Necrotizing fasciitis: a very serious infection that spreads quickly in the body and can lead to death if not treated quickly

Prevention 

Proper hygiene and wound care are essential for preventing cellulitis—especially if you are part of an at-risk community.

Some specific ways to reduce your risk of developing cellulitis, either for the first time or for a recurrent episode, are as follows:

  • Avoid injury to the skin: Avoid high-risk activities and/or wear protective equipment. Keep your nails well-manicured to avoid scratching yourself. Check your hands, feet, and limbs for signs of injury daily if you have had cellulitis before. 
  • Keep the skin moisturized and clean: Moisture will help avoid cracking, and cleaning with soap and water will help prevent bacteria from entering the skin.
  • Treat wounds right away: As soon as you get a wound, wash it with soap and water, apply an antibiotic ointment, and cover it with a bandage. Be sure to change the bandage daily until the wound is healed.
  • Treat infections right away: Infections anywhere on the body can lead to cellulitis. This includes common infections like athlete’s foot (a fungal infection typically between the toes) or impetigo (a skin infection of the face). 
  • Treat other medical conditions that can cause cellulitis to return: These conditions include lymphedema, diabetes, obesity, eczema, leg ulcers, and peripheral artery disease.
  • Quit smoking and drinking: While more research is still needed, some studies suggest that heavy smoking and drinking increase your risk of getting cellulitis again.
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When to See a Medical Provider

The CDC recommends visiting your doctor as soon as you recognize symptoms of cellulitis.

The faster you treat cellulitis, the better, as it can spread quickly through the body and lead to more serious complications if left untreated. 

If the area of infection begins to grow and spread quickly and/or you develop a fever or chills, you should seek immediate medical attention.

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and, if needed, text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the main cause of cellulitis?
Cellulitis occurs when bacteria enters the body through an injury or crack in the skin. The most common types of bacteria that cause cellulitis are ​​Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. This bacteria then causes an infection of the deeper layers of the skin.
What is cellulitis and how do you get it?
Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper layers of the skin caused by a number of different bacteria, though Staphylococcus and Streptococcus are the most common. It can enter the body through breaks or cracks in the skin, such as through injury, surgery, or skin conditions like eczema and athlete’s foot.
What is the fastest way to get rid of cellulitis?
The fastest way to get rid of cellulitis is to start treating it as soon as possible. Visit your doctor as soon as you recognize symptoms of cellulitis. They will most likely prescribe you antibiotics and ask that you do self-care at home (like wound care, rest, and elevating the affected area) in order to heal.
Is cellulitis caused by being dirty?
Not everyone gets cellulitis because they’re “dirty,” but proper hygiene and wound care can prevent cellulitis from occurring or reoccurring. Keeping a wound clean can prevent bacteria from entering, and bacteria is the cause of cellulitis.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Alicia Wooldridge, MD

Dr. Alicia Wooldridge is a board certified Family Medicine physician with over a decade of experience.

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