About Cellulitis

Updated April 17, 2017

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that can spread and become serious or even fatal. The bacteria most commonly responsible for causing cellulitis include strep and staph, but other types of bacteria have also been associated with the infection. Bacteria are able to penetrate the skin through simple cuts, insect bites or sores, and spread to deeper layers of tissue. Some people are more prone to developing cellulitis than others, such as diabetics and those with weakened immune systems. If not treated promptly with antibiotics, cellulitis can be fatal.


Cellulitis can affect people of any age, and may develop from a minor wound. Any skin injury is susceptible, including those caused by insect or animal bites, cuts or scrapes, burns, ulcers, psoriasis or eczema. Some medical disorders, such as diabetes and peripheral arterial disease, may make a person more vulnerable to the development of cellulitis. Also at risk are those with weakened immune systems, those who have had liposuction, and anyone who injects illegal drugs under the skin. While some cases of cellulitis clear up after just a few days on antibiotics, other cases may progress and spread through the bloodstream. This complication is life-threatening. Because cellulitis can occur in people of all ages, and because it can produce potentially serious medical complications, it is considered a severe condition and significant health problem.


Cellulitis typically begins as a red, warm, swollen, and tender area on the skin. As the infection progresses, other symptoms such as chills, fever and swollen glands may appear. Cellulitis generally occurs on the extremities, but it can occur anywhere on the body. The infection is most common on the legs, arms and face in adults, and on the face or around the anus in children. Facial infections can be very serious, as cellulitis of the eye is dangerous. In advanced cases, red streaks can be seen running from the infected area of tissue. These red streaks are sometimes referred to as fingers, and they indicate that the infection is spreading and may have reached the blood stream.


Some people are more at risk for developing cellulitis, including the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Diabetics are also more susceptible to cellulitis than others because of impairment of their immune system. Moreover, diabetics are especially prone to developing cellulitis in the feet due to decreased blood circulation and resulting ulcers. Diabetics may also respond less well to treatment, especially those with poorly controlled blood glucose levels. Anyone taking immunosuppressive medications or those with HIV are at increased risk of cellulitis, and anyone experiencing or recovering from an episode of chickenpox or shingles is exceptionally vulnerable to the infection. This is because the blisters caused by those illnesses are prone to bacterial contamination. Anyone in a high-risk group should be extra cautious following any skin injury, and should report any possible symptoms of cellulitis to a doctor immediately.


Taking good care of the skin, which includes keeping it clean, hydrated and covered as much as possible, can prevent cellulitis. Anyone at risk of developing cellulitis, such as those with diabetes, should check the feet and legs regularly for cuts and signs of infection. Pre-existing skin conditions, such as athlete's foot and eczema, should be treated to prevent a worsening of the condition and possible infection. Treatment of cellulitis is typically with antibiotics at home, but severe cases may require treatment in a hospital setting. Frequent cleaning of the wound and removal of dead tissue is also necessary. Treatment should begin as early as possible to reduce the likelihood of developing serious and potentially life-threatening complications.


Cellulitis can result in a host of serious medical complications, some of which can be fatal. Because cellulitis has the potential to infect deep layers of tissue and enter the lymph system and blood stream, it should always be taken seriously and requires treatment by a doctor. Some of the serious complications of cellulitis include meningitis, sepsis, and lymphangitis, which is an inflammation of the vessels of the lymph system. Tissue death, also called gangrene, is another serious complication that may require amputation in severe cases. Rarely, cellulitis may spread to the deep layer of tissue known as the fascial lining. Deep-layer infections of this kind are most often related to flesh-eating strep, or necrotizing fasciitis. If you have reason to believe your infection has spread to this depth, you must been seen by a doctor immediately. This type of infection is extremely serious and should be considered an emergency.

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