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Cellulitis

Cellulitis Overview

Cellulitis is a common infection of the skin and the soft tissues underneath. It happens when bacteria enter a break in the skin and spread. The result is infection, which may cause swelling, redness, pain, or warmth.

You’re at risk if you have:

  • Trauma to the skin
  • Diabetes
  • Circulatory problems, such as not enough blood flow to your arms and legs, poor drainage of your veins or lymphatic system, or varicose veins -- twisted, enlarged veins near the surface of the skin
  • Liver disease such as chronic hepatitis or cirrhosis
  • Skin disorders such as eczema, psoriasis, or infectious diseases that cause sores, such as chickenpox

Causes of Cellulitis

  • Injuries that tear the skin
  • Infections after surgery
  • Long-term skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis
  • Foreign objects in the skin
  • Bone infections underneath the skin. (An example is a long-standing, open wound that is deep enough to expose the bone to bacteria.)

Symptoms of Cellulitis

Cellulitis can appear on almost any part of the body. It usually shows up on damaged skin such as inflamed wounds, dirty cuts, and areas with poor circulation. It needs to be treated by a doctor. Common symptoms include:

  • Redness
  • Red streaking
  • Swelling
  • Warmth
  • Pain or tenderness
  • Leaking of yellow, clear fluid or pus

When to Seek Emergency Care for Cellulitis

Go to the emergency room if you have any of the following:

  • High fever or chills
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Enlarging or hardening of the reddened area
  • Increased pain
  • Numbness of the area when touched
  • Other medical problems that may be affected by even a minor infection

Exams and Tests for Cellulitis

Your doctor will do a medical history and physical exam. Additional procedures include:

  • A blood test if the infection is suspected to have spread to your blood
  • An X-ray if there’s a foreign object in the skin or the bone underneath is possibly infected
  • A culture. Your doctor will use a needle to draw fluid from the affected area and send it to the lab.

Treatment for Cellulitis

  • Rest the area.
  • Elevate the area to help reduce swelling and relieve discomfort.
  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin) to ease the pain, as well as keep your fever down.

If the infection isn’t too bad, you can take antibiotics by mouth for a week to 14 days. Your doctor will schedule a follow-up appointment. Your doctor may use IV or intramuscular antibiotics if:

  • The infection is severe.
  • You have other medical problems.
  • You are very young or very old.
  • The cellulitis covers large areas, is on your hands, or is close to body parts like your eyes.
  • The infection worsens even after taking antibiotics for 2 to 3 days.

In serious cases, you may need to stay in the hospital. You’ll get IV antibiotics until the infection is under control (2 to 3 days), and then go home with oral medicines.

WebMD Medical Reference

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