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.
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:
- Breast cellulitis, which typically appears on the lower half of the breast
- Perianal cellulitis, which infects the skin around the anus and rectum, most often in children
- Periorbital cellulitis (often called preseptal cellulitis), which impacts the skin around the eye
- Orbital cellulitis, which impacts the tissue and muscle of the eye socket
Cellulitis is rarely bilateral, meaning it rarely affects both sides of the body at the same time.
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.
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.
Cellulitis is treated in two main ways: antibiotics and self-care.
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.
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 poorly controlled diabetes
- 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
- Have lymphedema
- 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
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.
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.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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.
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
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Cellulitis: All You Need to Know. (2020.)
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Cellulitis: How to Prevent It From Returning. (n.d.)
Cellulitis: Signs and Symptoms. (n.d.)
Cellulitis: Who Gets and Causes. (n.d.)
Impetigo: All You Need to Know. (2021.)
Perianal streptococcal cellulitis. (n.d.)
Periorbital Cellulitis. (2021.)
Risk Factors for Recurrent Lower Extremity Cellulitis in a U.S. Veterans Medical Center Population. (2015.)
Skin-associated Infection (Cellulitis). (2021.)