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Cellulitis is a common skin infection
that happens when bacteria spread through the skin to deeper tissues. Most cases are mild and last several days to a couple of weeks. But cellulitis can sometimes progress to a more serious infection, causing severe illness that affects the whole body (sepsis) or other dangerous problems.
Treatment is needed to help control the infection and reduce symptoms.
Some people are at higher risk for cellulitis, such as those who have diabetes, a weakened immune system, or edema. They also tend to get sicker from cellulitis. And they are more likely to get cellulitis again.
Cellulitis is caused by
bacteria, most often strep or staph. You can get infected after any event that causes a break in the skin, such as:
Sometimes cellulitis can occur even if there wasn't an obvious break in the skin.
At first, the infected area
will be warm, red, swollen, and tender. If the infection spreads, you may have
a fever, chills, and swollen lymph nodes.
Cellulitis can occur anywhere
on the body. In adults, it often occurs on the legs, face, or arms. In
children, it is most common on the face or around the anus.
If you have signs of a skin infection, such as warmth, redness, swelling, or pain, see your doctor. Even minor infections may need to be treated.
Doctors are often able to diagnose
cellulitis based on your symptoms and a physical exam. In most cases,
you won't need further testing.
But tests sometimes may be done to find out what's causing your symptoms and to rule out other problems. For example, you may need blood tests, an ultrasound, or an imaging test such as a
CT scan or an
Cellulitis is treated with antibiotics. If the infection is mild, you may be able to take antibiotic
pills at home.
If the infection is severe, you may need to be treated in a hospital so that you can get IV antibiotics directly into your bloodstream, along with any other care you may need.
Be sure to follow your doctor's instructions about
medicine and skin care. To help with your recovery and to feel better:
Call your doctor if your symptoms get worse or if they haven't started to improve within 48 hours (2 days) after you start taking antibiotics.
If you are at
risk for cellulitis, you can take steps to help prevent it. If you've had cellulitis before, these steps may help prevent it from coming back.
Learning about cellulitis:
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) provides information
about the care of skin. You can locate a dermatologist in your
area by using their "Find a Dermatologist" tool. Or you can read the latest news in dermatology. "SPOT Skin Cancer" is the AAD's program to reduce deaths from melanoma. There is also a link called "Skin Conditions" that has information about many common skin problems.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious
Diseases conducts research and provides consumer information on infectious and
Other Works Consulted
Habif TP (2010). Bacterial infections. In Clinical Dermatology, A Color Guide to Diagnosis and Therapy, 5th ed., pp. 335–381. Edinburgh: Mosby Elsevier.
Heagerty AHM (2010). Cellulitis and erysipelas. In MG Lebwohl et al., eds., Treatment of Skin Disease: Comprehensive Therapeutic Strategies, 3rd ed., pp. 132–134. Edinburgh: Saunders Elsevier.
Lin Y-TJ, Lu P-W (2006). Retrospective study of pediatric facial cellulitis of odontogenic origin. Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal, 25(4): 339–342.
Lipworth AD, et al. (2012). Non-necrotizing infections of the dermis and subcutaneous fat: Cellulitis and erysipelas. In LA Goldman et al., eds., Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2160–2169. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Morris AD (2008). Cellulitis and erysipelas, search date May 2007. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Pasternack MS, Swartz MN (2010). Cellulitis, necrotizing fasciitis, and subcutaneous tissue infections. In GL Mandell et al., eds., Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 7th ed., vol. 1, pp. 1289–1312. Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
February 14, 2011
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Alexander H. Murray, MD, FRCPC - Dermatology
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