Even though it’s a common skin infection, many of my patients have never heard of cellulitis. Unfortunately, cellulitis can be a serious problem and may be difficult to get rid of, which is why it’s important to understand what can cause it, what important symptoms to look for and how to prevent it.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection caused when certain types of bacteria, most commonly staphylococcus and streptococcus, enter through a cut in the skin and begin to attack the skin’s tissues. Cellulitis involves not only the top layer of skin, but deeper layers of skin as well, which can make it more difficult to treat. While the infection can happen on any part of the body where the bacteria can infiltrate, it most commonly occurs on the lower leg, which is a common area for cuts, scrapes, insect bites, ulcers, athlete’s foot or dermatitis. The injury doesn’t have to be significant for bacteria to get in – as long as there’s a break in the skin. There is also a risk of cellulitis in patients who have recently undergone surgery. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a very serious staph infection which is often extremely difficult to treat, can also cause cellulitis.
What are Cellulitis Symptoms?
If you’ve recently had surgery or know of a cut on your skin, it may be easier for you to recognize a cellulitis infection. Sometimes, however, the abrasion you have can be relatively small – you might not even be aware of it. This is why it’s important to know the symptoms of cellulitis. If you’re noticing any of the following, but don’t have a fever, you need to make an appointment with your doctor – preferably the same day:
- A red area of your skin that seems to be spreading
- Deep red or purple spots
- Skin dimpling
If you have a red, swollen tender rash or the redness in your skin is spreading and you have a fever, seek emergency care. Left untreated, the spreading infection can quickly turn life-threatening.
Risk Factors for Cellulitis
- Having had a vein graft taken from the leg
- Immune system dysfunction
- Skin disruption due to trauma or surgery
- Skin inflammation such as dermatitis or due to radiation
How to Prevent and Treat Cellulitis
Taking good care of a cut is the best way to prevent this infection. If you have an abrasion, make sure to wash it regularly with soap and warm water. You should also apply an antibiotic ointment and cover it with a bandage. These bandages should be changed daily. If the wound is deeper than an average cut, be sure to make an appointment with your physician so they can check on it and prescribe antibiotics if they think it’s necessary. As long as you’re practicing good wound care, you should be fine, but be aware of the signs of infection and look out for them. If your physician determines that you do have cellulitis, follow their instructions very carefully. They will likely prescribe an oral antibiotic – it is vital that you take this exactly as instructed. Usually they require you take the medication for five to 10 days. In some circumstances, patients may have to take it longer. After a few days, your symptoms should start to dissipate – if they do not, or if they get worse, make sure you tell your physician. It may be necessary to administer antibiotics intravenously at that point.
If you have any questions or concerns, the best course of action will be to consult your doctor.
Dr. John Griffin is a board-certified dermatologist at Kelsey-Seybold Fort Bend Medical Center and Tanglewood Clinic. He completed a fellowship in Dermapathology in 2014. His clinical interests include skin cancer, autoimmune skin diseases, contact dermatitis, melanoma, psoriasis, skin cancer including lymphoma, skin infections and pruritus.