Cellulitis

1 What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a common, painful bacterial skin infection characterized by swelling, warmth, and pain at the affected site, which is mostly commonly the skin on the lower leg. Though the infection can rapidly spread to other body parts, it is not contagious.

The infection may be superficial, affecting only the skin’s surface, or it might go deeper into the tissues beneath the skin or even the lymph nodes and bloodstream.

It is a fast-spreading infection and, when left untreated, it can cause life-threatening complications.

Immediately consult your doctor if you experience symptoms of cellulitis.

What is Periorbital Cellulitis?

Periorbital cellulitis is an infection that affects the eyelid or area near the eye. More commonly, it affects children under five years of age.

When any trauma or scratch breaks the skin around the eye, the bacteria can enter the soft tissues beneath the skin and cause periorbital cellulitis.

Common symptoms are swelling and redness of the eyelids and nearby areas. However, you may not experience any pain.

Oral or injectable antibiotics are the main forms of treatment. Once you take the prescribed medications, you should start feeling and appearing better within 48 hours.

Most antibiotics are given without first determining the specific bacteria. This is known as empirical antibiotic treatment.

While most cases improve with antibiotic treatment, some patients may not respond to it. In such cases, your doctor may give you antibiotics that act against specific bacteria.

Failure to receive immediate treatment or a delayed response to an antibiotic may cause further complications, including the spread of the infection to the eyeball or eye socket, or even blindness.

2 Home remedies for cellulitis

Cellulitis is too severe to be treated by home remedies.

If you notice any symptoms, you should rush to your doctor.

Nevertheless, along with prescribed medications, you may also consider the following remedies to help ease your symptoms:

  • Increase your fluid intake: Increasing fluid intake can help lessen cellulitis by reducing the active spread of bacteria in the body. Natural fluids like water are mixed with the blood and help purify it. This makes the body more responsive to the infections and prevents an increase in bacteria.
  • Take over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription pain medications to reduce pain and fever. However, if you already have a digestive disorder like increased stomach acid or heartburn, exercise caution before use, as these medicines can increase such problems. Taking pain medications helps spread the bacteria in the body. However, they are very useful in reducing the side effects of cellulitis, including redness in the affected body part.
  • Raise the affected body part, if possible: Elevation reduces pain and swelling. Some of the common effects of cellulitis are swelling, accompanied by pain and redness on the affected body part. One can elevate the affected limb to ensure it doesn’t increase.
  • Apply cool, wet dressings or creams over the affected part: This may help relieve discomfort. The cool dressing acts as a cover over the infection, while the chemical composition of the cream stops the interaction of the bacteria with the skin. It also helps prevent the bacteria from spreading to other parts of the body.

3 Cellulitis and cellulite are not the same

People often confuse cellulite with cellulitis or vice versa, but they are completely different conditions. Such confusion may cause you to seek medical help when it really isn’t necessary.

Cellulite is more of a cosmetic problem than a health issue. It causes the appearance of lumps on the thighs and buttocks. Women are more likely to have cellulite than men. However, anyone can develop it at any age due to a number of reasons, including dehydration, poor diet, obesity, sedentary lifestyle, and others. Regardless of the cause, treatments are available that may help to improve appearance.

On the other hand, cellulitis is often a serious infection of the skin and deeper tissues caused by one of many types of bacteria. It causes swelling, redness, pain, and tenderness over an area of skin. Treatments for cellulitis include the use of oral or injectable antibiotics.

4 Symptoms

The signs and symptoms of cellulitis usually appear on one side of the body and include:

  • Redness on the skin
  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • A “hot” feeling on the affected area
  • Fever
  • Red spots or blisters
  • An “orange peel” look to the skin

The skin usually becomes red due to the chemical composition of the infection in the blood. The blood becomes stuck at one place and becomes red from itching. The skin usually grows tight in the affected part as well.

One of the most obvious symptoms of cellulitis is swelling. In some places, it could cause swelling of the lymph nodes as a reaction to the infection.

Pain is another possible symptom. The affected portion of the body can start to hurt, usually after swelling appears. The muscles grow weak due to the swelling, which results in pain that is initially mild, but can grow worse over time.

Early diagnosis and treatment of cellulitis can prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the body. If you have alarming symptoms like fever (which may be absent in some cases), red, swollen, tender rash, or a rapidly changing rash, consult your doctor immediately.

5 Causes

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection most often caused by streptococcus and staphylococcus.

A more serious variant of cellulitis caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is on the rise as of late.

Cellulitis commonly affects the skin on the lower leg, however, any part of your body can become infected. The pathogenic bacterium finds its way into your body through breaks in the skin that may be caused by recent surgery, cuts, puncture wounds, an ulcer, athlete's foot, or dermatitis.

You can also contract the bacteria through bites of certain insects and spiders.

6 Making a diagnosis

Diagnosis of cellulitis begins with an examination of the affected area. In addition, you may need blood tests, a wound culture, or other tests.

Visit your doctor if you have signs of cellulitis. Your doctor may refer you to a dermatologist (a doctor who specializes in skin disorders). If your symptoms are severe, you may be admitted to the emergency room. Sometimes, you may need to visit an infectious disease specialist for further investigation.

Preparing yourself for the visit can optimize therapy and help make the visit more fruitful. List out all your symptoms, even those that seem unrelated. Write down your medical history, as well as the names of all your medications, vitamins or supplements, and make a list of the questions you want to ask your doctor.

Some typical questions may be:

  • What could be causing my symptoms?
  • What tests do I need?
  • What are the treatment options and their possible side effects?
  • When will symptoms start improving?
  • Are there alternatives to antibiotics?
  • What can I do to prevent this type of infection in the future?

A clear talk with your doctor can optimize therapy and improve treatment outcomes. Prepare yourself to answer any essential questions from your doctor, like:

  • When did the symptoms start appearing?
  • How severe is the pain?
  • Was the affected part injured or bitten by an animal or insect recently?
  • Does anything improve or worsen your symptoms?
  • Are you allergic or intolerant to any antibiotics?
  • Have you had this type of infection before?

Your doctor will probably prescribe an antibiotic to treat your infection. Before that, you can soothe pain by placing a cool, damp cloth over the affected area. 

7 Treatment

Oral or intravenous antibiotics are the main treatment options for cellulitis.

After you start taking the antibiotic, you may have to wait up to three days to feel better. If you don’t, talk to your doctor. The usual course of antibiotic therapy is five to 10 days, but sometimes, you may have to take it for 14 days. If the signs and symptoms are severe and do not improve with oral antibiotic therapy, intravenous antibiotics may be needed.

Do not discontinue the medication even if signs fade away, and use antibiotics only as directed. You may also elevate the affected area to speed up recovery.

Cellulitis

8 Prevention

You may have to take antibiotics to prevent cellulitis from recurring.

The following suggestions might help you prevent cellulitis if you already have a wound:

  • Properly wash your wound daily with soap and water
  • Apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment to protect it
  • Apply a protective bandage and change it daily
  • Keep a close eye on signs like redness, pain, and drainage, which might be indicative of a serious infection requiring immediate medical attention.

Proper sanitation can be the greatest boon for this problem. The infection is usually caused by bacteria that find its way into the body through improperly treated or dirty areas. In some cases, not bathing regularly can also cause the infection to arise. Not washing hands properly can also be a reason for the infection. It is advised to wash the hands regularly to avoid any kind of infection in the body; one should wash their hands before and after each meal as well.

Infections have a great chance of entering the body through wounds. However, one can apply antibiotic ointments to decrease the bacterial infection. These ointments counteract the bacteria and decrease the risk of more entering the body.

One should also keep an eye on other symptoms, like redness, pain, and drainage in the affected body part. These symptoms become more pronounced after any further complications in the body. If one ignores these symptoms, the infection can turn for the worse and cause very harmful effects.

Exercise special caution if you have diabetes or any disease that affects circulation, as you are more likely to have complications from even a small injury.

Following these skin care measures can help prevent infection:

  • Check your feet regularly to identify any signs of injury
  • Apply a moisturizing lotion on your skin regularly
  • If your skin is prone to drying, possibly due to climate conditions, apply lubricating lotions to prevent cracking and peeling
  • Regularly trim your fingernails and toenails to prevent injury. While trimming, take precautions not to injure the surrounding skin
  • Wear appropriate footwear and gloves whenever possible
  • If you have any superficial skin infection such as athlete’s foot, treat it immediately to prevent complications

9 Risks and complications

There are several risks and complications associated with cellulitis.

The following factors may increase the risk of developing cellulitis:

  • Injury: The bacteria can enter into your body through a cut, fracture, or burn.
  • Weakened immune system: Many diseases, like HIV/AIDS, diabetes, and leukemia, weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections. Certain medications such as corticosteroids can also weaken your immune system.
  • Skin conditions: Skin disorders such as eczema, athlete's foot, chickenpox, and shingles can cause skin breaks through which bacteria can enter your body.
  • Chronic swelling of arms or legs (lymphedema): Cracks might occur on swollen tissue and increase your risk of developing bacterial infection.
  • History of cellulitis: Having cellulitis in the past can increase the risk of recurrence.
  • Intravenous drug use: Injecting drugs on a regular basis injures and weakens your skin.
  • Obesity: Excess weight is linked to occurrence and recurrence of cellulitis in some people.

Complications

Cellulitis-causing bacteria is notorious for rapidly spreading into the lymph nodes and bloodstream. An extremely serious condition can occur where flesh-eating strep spreads to deeper layers of tissue (necrotizing fasciitis).

Remember that complications can occur if you fail to get prompt treatment or if the antibiotics fail to work against the causative bacteria. The latter is known as antibiotic resistance.

Some other complications include:

  • Blood infection: Also called sepsis, this is a potentially fatal condition in which the invading bacteria and their toxins are spread all through the circulation and tissues. If you do not receive immediate treatment, sepsis can cause failure of vital organs and even death.
  • Bone infection: This is also known as osteomyelitis, wherein the infection spreads to the bone. In most cases, you will need to have the affected bone surgically removed.
  • Endocarditis: The inner linings of the heart become inflamed due to the infection. In some cases, the heart valves may also be involved.
  • Meningitis: If the bacteria reach your brain’s protective covering, they may cause inflammation, and if immediate care is not taken, it can lead to brain damage and death.
  • Shock: This happens when your body is deprived of sufficient blood flow to vital organs.
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