What Is Cellulitis?

Vicky Davis, FNP

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 7/25/2020

Taking care of your skin doesn’t begin and end with washing your face and applying a good moisturizer. 

Cellulitis is a good example of what can go wrong when something as benign as a scratch or cut becomes infected. 

When you wound yourself, a potentially fatal infection isn’t always top-of-mind. 

But even a small wound or existing skin condition can be an entry point for a big illness.

About 14.5 million cases of cellulitis are diagnosed each year in the United States. 

Data on cellulitis is lacking, but it’s estimated that one percent to 14 percent of emergency room visits in the U.S. are for cellulitis. 

If you have cellulitis, you certainly aren’t alone, but that doesn’t always make it easier to deal with. 

Cellulitis Symptoms 

The tell-tale symptoms of cellulitis are red, swollen skin in the affected body part. Most often this occurs on a lower leg. 

But the symptoms may not begin there. 

The first sign of this bacterial infection could be fever, fatigue or chills — fairly common signals your body is fighting an infection. 

A severe form of cellulitis can cause nausea, cold sweats, trouble focusing and intense pain. 

Symptoms on the skin generally include redness and swelling. The area affected is known to get bigger as the infection spreads and grows quickly. The skin may feel hot to the touch, and hurt. 

Nearby muscles and joints may ache. In severe cases, you may develop blisters, red streaking or pus-filled bump(s). 

Cellulitis Causes

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria entering the body, typically through an open wound. 

Several types of bacteria can be responsible for the infection, including Streptococcus (strep), Staphylococcus (staph) and MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). 

Normally, these bacteria can live on the skin and not cause any problems. But once inside the body, they can wreak havoc. 

The bacteria can enter through a cut, scrape or even cracks caused by athlete’s foot, eczema or dry skin.

Less common causes for cellulitis include bacteria found in fresh water sources, hot tubs, spas or in animal bites

Risk Factors for Cellulitis 

Some people are at a greater risk for developing cellulitis. Generally, these risk factors make it easier for the bacteria to either enter your body or to take hold once inside. They include: 

  • Athlete’s foot

  • Eczema

  • Previous bouts with cellulitis

  • Poorly controlled diabetes 

  • HIV or AIDS 

  • Poor circulation

  • Vascular disease

  • Surgery

  • Chemotherapy

  • Corticosteroids or other immunosuppressant drugs

  • Liver or kidney disease 

  • Lymphedema

  • Medications taken after an organ transplant 

Also, if you frequently injure your skin, whether in sports or otherwise, you’re at a greater risk of developing cellulitis. 

People who live in long-term care facilities, inmates and active duty military are also at an increased risk.

One study found there are seasonal trends in cellulitis diagnosis, suggesting the risks of contracting it are highest in summer months.

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Cellulitis Complications 

Cellulitis can become very serious if not treated, or if it’s a particularly aggressive infection. 

These complications can be severe and even life-threatening. They are more common in people who suffer from conditions that impact their body’s immune system. These complications may include: 

  • Blood or bone infections

  • Inflammation of the heart or lymph vessels

  • Infection in the tissues surrounding your brain or spinal cord (meningitis) 

  • Shock 

  • Tissue death (gangrene)

Treatment for Cellulitis 

Cellulitis must be treated with a healthcare professional’s help. 

Because it is an infection that can lead to serious complications, talking with a healthcare professional  or dermatologist for a proper diagnosis and medication is crucial. 

If caught early, your healthcare provider will likely prescribe a round of oral antibiotics to be taken at home. After taking the medicine for seven to 14 days, your symptoms and the infection should subside. 

In serious cases, however, hospitalization may be needed. 

You may be hospitalized for treatment if: the infection is on your face, you are very ill, you require intravenous antibiotics, you have a compromised immune system or the infection is worsening despite treatment. 

Cellulitis Prevention 

Preventing cellulitis is important, particularly for people who have already been infected once, as they are more at risk of developing it again. 

Preventing cellulitis requires a two-pronged approach: protecting your skin and keeping wounds clean. 

Be careful not to create entry points for bacteria by exercising caution when playing sports or handling sharp objects, keeping your skin moist and free from dry skin cracks, preventing blisters and other foot wounds by wearing properly-fitting shoes and otherwise being cautious. 

If you do develop a break in the skin or wound, wash it with soap and water and keep it clean. Cover it with a bandage and monitor it for signs of infection. 

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. Learn more about our editorial standards here.