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What Is Cellulitis?: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments of Cellulitis

What is Cellulitis?: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments for Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection, which usually occurs in the deep layers of the skin. The infection happens when bacteria enter the skin through open cuts and wounds. The infected area usually feels warm to touch, painful, red, and swollen.

The most common part of the body affected by cellulitis is the lower leg, although it may also affect the face and other parts of the body. Cellulitis treatment usually lasts for 7 to 10 days. However, the infection may worsen without maintaining proper cleanliness in the body.

Signs and Symptoms of Cellulitis

Although around 40 percent of cellulitis rash occurs in the lower legs, any part of the body that has broken skin or wound can still develop cellulitis. Moreover, it is observed that only one side of an individual’s body is usually affected by the infection. 

The common signs and symptoms of cellulitis include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Itching
  • Redness

The affected part of the body usually become red, inflamed, tender, and swollen. Some people with cellulitis develop blisters, skin dimpling, and spots on the affected area.

Causes of Cellulitis

Most cases of cellulitis are caused by Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria. These bacteria are quite common and can be found on the skin of healthy adults. However, most healthy individuals won’t easily be infected by them because of their strong immune systems. 

The symptoms of cellulitis usually develop because the body tries to protect itself from the invasion or multiplication of harmful bacteria. There are numerous health conditions that can impair the function of the immune system, and they include diabetes, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, HIV infection, and cancer

Other risk factors that can weaken the immune system and cause infections include:

  • Emotional or physical stress
  • Nutritional deficiencies due to poor diet
  • Obesity
  • Corticosteroid drugs
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Drug abuse 

Common risk factors:

  • Previous History of Cellulitis - An individual who previously had cellulitis has an increased risk of developing the skin infection again. 
  • Skin Disorders - Individuals who have skin problems such as eczema, psoriasis, and other skin conditions that can cause sores are more prone to developing cellulitis due to broken skin. 
  • Wounds and Abrasion - Wounds and skin abrasions can also be the reasons for bacteria to enter the body, thereby leading to a cellulitis infection. 
  • LymphedemaIt is the collection of fluid that causes chronic swelling of the arms or legs. In this type of swelling, the skin may crack, which makes it susceptible to bacterial infection. 

All these factors act as gateways for bacteria to enter and start proliferating under the skin. 

Problems Related to Infection

  • Cellulitis causes the affected part of the body to swell due to bacterial infection. It usually becomes red, warm, and painful.
  • Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that can weaken the immune system. People with diabetes often have slow wound healing, which is why they are more prone to developing cellulitis. If the wound is not properly treated, it can lead to skin ulcers, which create a gateway for infections in the body. Managing blood sugar levels may help improve the healing process.
  • Cellulitis can trigger sepsis in some individuals if the infection is left untreated. An infection anywhere in the body caused by flu, pneumonia, or UTIs can also cause sepsis and septic shock. Sepsis is a life-threatening complication that must be treated quickly for survival.
  • Various skin infections can also arise from the affected area. Skin infections affecting the dermis are influenced by the movement of bacteria in the body. 

Treatment

Treatment for cellulitis may include the following:

1. Oral Antibiotics

In the initial phases of the infection, most patients are given oral antibiotics to take for a week. Oral antibiotics are usually given 2-4 times a day. However, antibiotic treatment may extend for more than seven days if the symptoms do not show improvements or when there are underlying conditions that make cellulitis tougher to treat. An example of such condition is lymphedema.

The most commonly prescribed oral antibiotics for cellulitis are amoxicillin, clarithromycin, co-amoxiclav, and flucloxacillin. Taking these antibiotics may also have side effects such as diarrhea or an upset stomach. Although you may notice a worsening of your condition in the first 2 days of treatment, expect to feel better afterward. Even if you already feel better, always follow the recommended antibiotic course you are given.

2. Home Remedies

The following are home remedies you can do when you have cellulitis:

  • You can take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to relieve pain.
  • To reduce swelling, raise the affected body part. If your leg is the one affected, rest your leg on a pillow or chair for elevation.
  • To avoid stiffness, regularly move your wrist or ankle.
  • Hydrate by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • If you have lymphedema, avoid wearing compression stockings until you have recovered. 

3. Hospital Treatment

If there is a need for hospital admission for treatment, you will be given intravenous antibiotics. If your condition improves and ready to go home, you will continue taking oral antibiotics at home. 

Diagnosis

First, the doctor will physically examine your wound. The appearance of your skin will help the doctor make a proper diagnosis. Aside from physical examination, the doctor may also suggest for blood tests, bacterial wound culture, and other tests to rule out other health conditions. 

Prognosis               

Usually, cellulitis responds with antibiotic treatment. Sometimes, patients with cellulitis develop abscesses. Necrotizing skin infections, which are infections that rapidly destroy tissues and bacteremia (the spread of bacteria through the bloodstream) are rare but serious complications of cellulitis.

Cellulitis can also repeatedly affect the same skin area, especially on the legs. In this case, it may cause permanent swelling of the affected tissue due to lymphatic vessel damage. 

Prevention

Take the following precautions whenever you have an open wound or broken skin:

  • Wash your wound properly using soap and water.
  • Apply over-the-counter topical antibiotic cream or ointment.
  • Cover your wound with a bandage and change it daily.
  • Observe signs of infection.

For people with diabetes:

  • Regularly inspect your feet for any broken skin or wound to detect infections early.
  • To avoid skin cracking and peeling, moisturize your skin daily.
  • Always keep your fingernails short to avoid injuring the surrounding skin.
  • Wear comfortable and appropriate shoes and gloves to protect your feet and hands.
  • Treat superficial skin infections such as athlete’s foot as soon as possible. 

Key Takeaways

  • Cellulitis is a bacterial infection, which usually occurs in the deep layers of the skin. The infection happens when bacteria enter the skin through open cuts and wounds. 
  • The appearance of your skin will help the doctor make a proper diagnosis. Aside from physical examination, the doctor may also suggest for blood tests, bacterial wound culture, and other tests to rule out other health conditions. 
  • In the initial phases of the infection, most patients are given oral antibiotics to take for a week. However, antibiotic treatment may extend for more than seven days if the symptoms do not show improvements or when there are underlying conditions that make cellulitis tougher to treat.