Cellulitis: What It Is, Treatment, Causes & More

Mary Lucas, RN
Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN Written by Our Editorial Team Last updated 11/25/2020

Cellulitis is a bacterial infection that affects the skin and underlying tissue. It usually develops at the location of an injury to the skin, such as a cut, sore or burn where bacteria is able get under the skin and into the underlying skin layers and tissue.

If you have cellulitis, your skin may look red and be swollen and painful at the area of the infection. It may also feel warmer than normal when you touch it.

Cellulitis can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. Adults typically develop cellulitis in the lower legs. In children, it’s more common for cellulitis to develop in the face and neck.

It’s important to talk to a healthcare professional if you think you may have cellulitis. Most cases of cellulitis can be treated effectively using antibiotics. Without treatment, cellulitis can spread to other parts of your body and potentially lead to life-threatening complications such as sepsis.

Below, we’ve listed the symptoms and potential complications of cellulitis. We’ve also explained how cellulitis often develops, how it’s typically diagnosed by a healthcare professional and the treatments that are available to you if you have cellulitis.

Symptoms of Cellulitis

Cellulitis causes your skin to become red and swollen. If you press on the affected area, it may feel warm and painful. If you have severe cellulitis, you may also notice blisters, open sores or pus-filled bumps forming on the affected area of skin.

Cellulitis can cause red streaks to develop in your skin, as well as swelling in the lymph nodes (glands) near the affected area. This may indicate that the infection has spread to your lymph system.

Some people notice other signs of cellulitis before visible, physical symptoms begin to appear. If you have cellulitis, you may start to develop symptoms of an infection, such as a general feeling of sickness with a fever, fatigue or chills.

If you notice any of the symptoms listed above and think that you may have cellulitis, you should talk to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. 

If you have a severe infection, you may notice the following symptoms in addition to those listed above:

  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Drowsiness
  • Severe pain and discomfort
  • Cold sweats
  • Low blood pressure
  • Rapid heart rate

These infections may indicate that you have a severe bacterial infection, including an infection that’s spread to other parts of your body. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should seek emergency medical assistance as soon as possible. 

Potential Complications Associated With Cellulitis

When left untreated, the bacteria that cause cellulitis can potentially spread to other parts of the body, including your lymph system and bloodstream. This can cause severe complications. You may develop:

  • Tissue damage and/or death (gangrene). Severe bacterial infections may cause severe damage to the affected tissue or cause tissue death (gangrene).
  • Permanent damage to the lymph vessels. This may permanently affect your immune system and cause other long-term complications.

When Should You Talk to a Healthcare Professional?

It’s important to talk to a healthcare professional or your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you think that you may have cellulitis. Treating cellulitis early helps to lower the risk of the bacteria spreading throughout your body and causing complications. 

If you notice any of the symptoms of cellulitis, such as red, swollen, warm or tender skin, talk to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. 

What Causes Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria. A diverse variety of bacteria live on our skin. These bacteria are harmless on the outside of our bodies, but can cause serious health issues when they enter the body and begin to multiply.

When your skin breaks open due to a cut, sore, burn, bite or puncture wound, harmful bacteria can get through your skin’s protective barrier and enter into your body.

Cellulitis can also develop when bacteria enter into your body through cracks in the skin caused by a medical condition. If you have dry skin, eczema or a fungal skin infection such as athlete’s foot, the deep cracks in the skin caused by this condition may allow bacteria to enter. 

Most cases of cellulitis are caused by the Streptococcus and Staphylococcus bacteria. Other types of bacteria, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), can also cause cellulitis. 

Who is Most at Risk?

Cellulitis can affect people of all ages and backgrounds. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it’s estimated that more than 14 million cases of cellulitis are diagnosed in the US alone every year.

You may have a higher risk of developing cellulitis if you’re overweight or obese, middle-aged or older, or if you’ve previously had cellulitis. Cellulitis may also develop more often in people with an elevated risk of skin injuries, such as:

  • Athletes
  • Children
  • Intravenous drug users
  • Military personnel
  • People in long-term care facilities
  • Prisoners

You may also have an elevated risk of developing cellulitis or complications from cellulitis if you have any of the following medical conditions: 

  • Athlete’s foot
  • Atopic dermatitis (eczema)
  • Diabetes that is not well controlled
  • HIV/AIDs
  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Chronic liver disease
  • Lymphedema
  • Poor blood circulation and related conditions, such as leg ulcer or stasis dermatitis

Finally, you may have an elevated risk of developing cellulitis if you’ve recently had surgery, are currently undergoing chemotherapy or have previously had an organ transplant and need to take medication that affects your immune system. 

Diagnosis of Cellulitis

Most of the time, your healthcare provider will be able to diagnose cellulitis through a physical examination of your skin. Your healthcare provider may ask you questions about your symptoms and medical history to learn more before diagnosing you with cellulitis.

Make sure to let your healthcare provider know about any recent injuries you’ve had to your skin, as well as any medications you currently use. 

Some of the symptoms of cellulitis are similar to those of other medical conditions. Your healthcare provider may ask you to take certain tests to check what bacteria is causing the infection. 

In some cases, they may refer you to a dermatologist, who can provide a more accurate diagnosis of cellulitis or other skin conditions.

Cellulitis Treatment and Prevention

As a type of bacterial infection, cellulitis is treated with antibiotics. If you’ve been diagnosed with cellulitis, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe an oral antibiotic for you to take over the next seven to 14 days.

Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed by your healthcare provider and make sure to finish the entire course of medication, even if your symptoms begin to disappear quickly. Stopping antibiotics too early can increase your risk of developing recurring, antibiotic-resistant infections. 

If you have a weakened immune system or other medical condition, your healthcare provider may prescribe additional medications or require you to use antibiotics for longer than 14 days.

Sometimes, cellulitis can come back after treatment. If you get cellulitis again several times in a year, your healthcare provider may prescribe an antibiotic for you to use over the long term. Research shows that this can help to prevent recurrent cellulitis flare-ups.

For severe cellulitis, you may need to take intravenous (IV) antibiotics and stay in the hospital during your treatment. The total amount of time you’ll need to spend in the hospital can vary based on the severity of your cellulitis and spread of bacteria throughout your body.

Other Treatments for Cellulitis

In addition to antibiotics, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take other steps to care for your skin and improve recovery. These include:

  • Rest. It’s important to rest until your symptoms start to improve. Take it easy and avoid any strenuous activity while you’re taking antibiotics to treat cellulitis.
  • Caring for your wounds. If your cellulitis is linked to a cut, sore, burn, bite or puncture wound, you may need to care for the wound using wound dressing, topical medications and other products.
  • Elevation. Your healthcare provider may suggest elevating your leg above heart level if it’s affected by cellulitis. This can help to reduce the extent of swelling and improve your recovery.

If your cellulitis was caused by another medical condition, such as skin breaks due to athlete’s foot or other problems, your healthcare provider may also prescribe medication to treat the condition and reduce the risk of the infection occurring again.

Prevention

There are several steps that you can take to reduce your risk of getting cellulitis. Prevention is especially important if you’ve already had cellulitis before, as previous infections can increase your risk of developing cellulitis again. To prevent cellulitis, make sure to:

  • Keep your skin clean, healthy and protected. Caring for your skin can help to reduce your risk of getting infections. Wash your skin regularly to clean away bacteria that can cause infections, including cellulitis.
  • Use moisturizer to avoid dry, cracked skin. If you get dry skin often, use a moisturizer to prevent cracks from developing. Try applying your moisturizer within three minutes of getting out of the shower or bath for best results.
  • Take steps to avoid cuts and other skin injuries. One easy way to reduce your risk of cellulitis is to avoid cuts, burns and other injuries that allow bacteria to enter your skin in the first place.

    Take care when you’re exercising, cooking, working in your yard or doing anything else that could cause you to cut or damage your skin. If you’re hiking, wearing long sleeves and trousers can help to reduce your risk of skin injuries.
  • If you damage your skin, treat it immediately. If you cut, scratch or damage your skin, make sure that you treat it right away by cleaning it with soap and water, using a topical antibiotic and covering the wound.

    For severe skin injuries, such as deep puncture wounds or animal bites, talk to a healthcare professional or other healthcare professional as soon as you can. They’ll be able to let you know how to take care of the wound and reduce your infection risk.
  • Check regularly for cuts and other injuries. It’s easy to miss small cuts, scratches or other injuries to your skin. Check your feet and other parts of your body regularly for any small injuries that could go unnoticed.
  • If you’re overweight or obese, try to lose weight. You may have an increased risk of cellulitis if you’re overweight or obese. Try to lose weight and maintain a healthy body mass index (BMI) to reduce your risk of developing cellulitis or complications.
  • Manage any existing medical conditions. Medical conditions such as diabetes may increase your risk of developing cellulitis or complications from cellulitis. If you have any medical conditions, actively treating and managing them may reduce your risk.

  • Treat common skin infections as soon as you notice them. Common skin infections such as tinea (ringworm, jock itch and athlete’s foot) and impetigo can increase your risk of developing cellulitis.

    If you notice any signs of a skin infection, it’s important to treat them as soon as possible to avoid damage that could allow bacteria to enter your skin.

Talk to a Healthcare Professional About Cellulitis

If you think that you have cellulitis, it’s important to talk to a healthcare professional as soon as possible. Cellulitis is usually easily treatable using antibiotics when it’s caught early, but it can cause serious complications if it’s left untreated and allowed to spread throughout the body. 

Consult with a licensed healthcare provider now to discuss your symptoms and learn more about what you can do to treat and manage cellulitis. 

If appropriate, the provider can write you a prescription on the spot and send it directly to a local pharmacy of your choice, allowing you to get the relief you need fast, all without having to go to a doctor’s office. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.