What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a deep bacterial infection of the skin and soft tissue of the skin. The infection usually involves the arms and legs. It can also be seen around the eye, mouth, abdominal wall and anus. Cellulitis may happen in normal skin, but it usually occurs after some type of trauma causes an opening in your skin. This opening can lead to an infection.

What is the cause of cellulitis?

Cellulitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection of a wound or area of skin that is no longer intact. The most common bacterial causes of cellulitis include the following:

  • Group A ß - hemolytic streptococcus

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

  • Staphylococcus aureus

Staphylococci and streptococci are commonly found on the skin or mucous membranes of the mouth and nose in healthy people. The infection occurs when there is a break in the skin, allowing the bacteria to enter. Other causes may include human or animal bites, or injuries that occur in water.

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

The following are the most common symptoms of cellulitis. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Redness of the skin

  • Swelling of the skin

  • Tenderness

  • Warm skin

  • Pain

  • Bruising

  • Blisters

  • Fever

  • Headache

  • Chills

  • Weakness

  • Red streaks from the original site of the cellulitis

Some cases of cellulitis are considered an emergency. Always consult your doctor immediately if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • A very large area of red, inflamed skin

  • Fever

  • If the area affected is causing numbness, tingling, or other changes in a hand, arm, leg, or foot

  • If the skin appears black

  • If the area that is red and swollen is around your eye(s) or behind the ear(s)

  • If you have diabetes or have a weakened immune system and develops cellulitis

The symptoms of cellulitis may resemble other skin conditions. Always consult your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

Diagnosis is usually based on a medical history and physical examination. Blood and skin samples may be taken to confirm the diagnosis and the type of bacteria that is present.

Treatment for cellulitis

Specific treatment for cellulitis will be determined by your doctor based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the condition

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Immediate treatment can help prevent the spread of cellulitis. Treatment may include:

  • Oral or intravenous (IV) antibiotics

  • Cool, wet dressings on the infection site

  • Keeping the area dry and clean 

  • Surgical intervention

  • If you have an extremity (arm or leg) that is affected, your doctor may have you elevate the extremity and decrease the amount of activity

  • Rest

  • Appropriate time to heal 

Based on the physical examination, your doctor may treat you in the hospital, depending on the severity of the cellulitis. In the hospital, you may receive antibiotics and fluids through an intravenous (IV) catheter.