If you don’t know much about cellulitis — or you’ve never even heard of it — here are a few fast facts to bring you up to speed on this potentially dangerous skin infection.
Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that can develop quickly and advance rapidly. It affects more than 14 million people in the United States every year. (1)
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis include skin redness, pain, tenderness, and warmth. Severe infections may additionally cause blisters, nausea, fever, and confusion. (2)
Cellulitis can occur in both children and adults, and it’s not an infection you can treat yourself. If you suspect you have cellulitis, see your doctor or a dermatologist without delay. Most likely you’ll receive a prescription for oral antibiotics, but in some cases, intravenous antibiotics must be given in a hospital. (3)
Learn what raises your risk of developing cellulitis and how you can avoid it.
1. Cellulitis Is Most Often Caused by Staph or Strep Bacteria
Both Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria can live harmlessly on the skin, but when there’s a break in the skin, they can cause a few different types of infections, including cellulitis. (2)
Another type of bacteria that can cause cellulitis is Pasteurella multocida, which is most commonly transmitted to humans from an animal scratch or bite. (4)
2. Any Break in the Skin Opens the Door to Cellulitis
While most cuts, scrapes, blisters, and bugbites don’t lead to cellulitis, any opening in the skin can, under the right circumstances. Such circumstances include the presence of infection-causing bacteria in the wound, but since bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, you can’t tell by looking whether a minor injury may develop into a major infection.
Some of the other factors that raise the risk of cellulitis include:
- Inadequate wound cleaning
- A weakened immune system
- Reduced blood flow to the infected area
- Impaired lymphatic drainage in the infected area
To reduce the risk of developing cellulitis, wash all minor wounds with soap and water as soon as possible, cover cuts and scrapes with gauze or an adhesive bandage to protect the wound, and check wounds daily for signs of infection and healing.
If you see a wound getting worse rather than better, consider seeing a doctor, particularly if you have diabetes.
3. Cellulitis Is Not the Same as Cellulite
Some people confuse cellulitis with cellulite, but they are two completely different conditions.
“Cellulite is often a cosmetic concern, and it develops when there’s fibrous tethering of the upper layer of the skin to the underlying muscle,” explains Anna Guanche, MD, a board-certified dermatologist who specializes in cosmetic procedures in Calabasas, California.
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“As fat increases in the area, it isn’t evenly distributed due to the tight tethers, leading to a bumpy or dimpled appearance,” Dr. Guanche says.
Cellulitis, on the other hand, is a bacterial infection of the skin, often appearing as a warm, red, tender, swollen area, Dr. Guanche says.
Cellulite does not require medical treatment; cellulitis does.
4. A History of Cellulitis Increases Your Risk for Getting It Again
Having cellulitis one time increases your risk for getting it again, but steps can be taken to reduce that risk. (2)
Start by following your doctor’s instructions for treating your initial infection, including completing your course of antibiotics. (5) Antibiotics are usually prescribed for 10 to 14 days, but you might start to feel better after day three. Some people make the mistake of stopping their antibiotics too soon, but if you don’t finish the series, you may not completely kill the bacteria, and the infection could return.
In addition, take measures to reduce skin injuries. Wear protective gear when playing sports and working outdoors, wear sunscreen to prevent a sunburn, limit contact with unfamiliar animals, and apply insect repellent to avoid bug bites. (5)
If you get a wound of any kind, clean it thoroughly with warm, soapy water to rinse out dirt and bacteria. Also be sure to wash your hands before caring for your own wound or the wounds of others. Apply a topical antibiotic ointment to minor skin injuries and keep any injury covered with a bandage until it fully heals, changing the bandage daily. (2,3)
Washing your hands regularly to remove germs and bacteria may also help to prevent recurrent skin infections.
Even if you take the above measures, cellulitis can recur. If you have more than three or four infections within a 12-month period, your doctor may recommend a low-dose antibiotic as long-term maintenance therapy to prevent future infections.
5. Cellulitis Isn’t Usually Contagious
Even though cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection, it generally doesn’t spread from person to person. The possible exceptions are if the person exposed has an open wound or there’s direct skin-to-skin or skin-to-surface contact. (2)
Therefore, if you have cellulitis, you don’t have to worry too much about passing it to family members or friends, but you should still make sure no one touches any open wounds on your body with bare hands or skin.
6. Cellulitis Can Occur Anywhere on the Body
Cellulitis can occur anywhere on the body, but some parts are more prone to these infections than others. Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in the Los Angeles area, says that the extremities (legs, feet, arms, and hands) are the most common sites in adults.
In children, on the other hand, cellulitis is more likely to occur on the face, arms, and lower legs. (6)
When cellulitis involves the fat and muscle around the eye, it’s called orbital cellulitis. When it involves the skin around the eye and eyelids, it’s called periorbital or preseptal cellulitis. (7)
Dr. Shainhouse notes that cellulitis often occurs only on one side of the body at a time.
7. Cellulitis Can Be Life-Threatening
Most cases of cellulitis respond well to treatment, and symptoms start to disappear within a few days of starting an antibiotic. (5) But if left untreated, cellulitis can progress and become life-threatening.
“The primary concern for a case of cellulitis is sepsis, which is an infection in the bloodstream that can lead to shock or death,” says Dr. Guanche.
Signs and symptoms of sepsis include extremely low blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. Treatment involves hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics. (8)
Some other possible life-threatening complications of cellulitis include osteomyelitis (infection of the underlying bone) and necrotizing fasciitis, the “flesh-eating” disease that destroys soft tissue, sometimes leading to loss of limbs or even death. (9)
8. Diagnostic Tests Aren’t Often Required for Cellulitis
In most cases, your doctor won’t need to perform diagnostic testing to determine whether you have cellulitis. It is typically confirmed simply by looking at the skin. (5)
In the event that suspected cellulitis doesn’t respond to an antibiotic, your doctor may perform testing on a follow-up visit.
This might include a blood culture or a complete blood count (CBC) to check for the presence of bacteria. Or your doctor may perform a bacterial culture to identify the type of bacteria responsible for the infection. A skin biopsy can often confirm or rule out another skin disorder. (3,5)
9. Getting a Tattoo Puts You at Risk for Cellulitis.
Getting a tattoo in a studio with properly sterilized equipment and other hygiene measures in place is normally safe. But because a tattoo breaks the skin’s barrier, there’s also the risk of bacteria getting into the skin and causing a skin infection such as cellulitis. (10) For this reason, it’s important to take care of your skin before and after a tattoo.
Experts recommend cleaning your skin before getting a tattoo with a skin cleanser like Hibiclens or its generic equivalent, chlorhexidine, available at most drugstores.