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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
You may also have an elevated risk of developing cellulitis or complications from cellulitis if you have any of the following medical conditions:
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.
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.
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.
In addition to antibiotics, your healthcare provider may recommend that you take other steps to care for your skin and improve recovery. These include:
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.
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:
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.