Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and tissue just below the skin. The infection may occur anywhere on the body. It is most common on the lower legs.
Cellulitis is caused by a bacterial infection. It may come from bacteria that normally lives on the skin or bacteria from other sources. The bacteria enter the skin through a cut or injury. The infection spreads into the surrounding skin.
Factors that may increase the risk of cellulitis include:
A minor injury to the skin such as, a cut, scratch,
burn, puncture, or bite
- Injuries that occur in natural bodies of water
- A cut or abrasion
- Bacteria that enter the body through surgical wounds or a catheter in a vein
Having certain conditions such as diabetes,
HIV, kidney or liver disease, or poor circulation
- Taking steroids on a regular basis
- Undergoing surgery
- Retaining fluids
- A fungal infection of the foot
- Handling certain foods, like raw fish, meat, shellfish, poultry, and eggs
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Symptoms may begin within hours or days and can include:
Skin inflammation that begins in a small area and spreads with:
- Pain or tenderness
- A red streak
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Fever or chills
Cellulitis near the eyes may cause pain with eye movements and should be treated right away.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. Your doctor will also ask about exposure to natural bodies of water or animals. Your skin will be closely examined. The border of the cellulitis on your skin may be marked. This will help to monitor its progress
Tests may include:
- Wound culture to test for the bacteria causing the infection
- Blood tests to see if the infection has spread to the bloodstream
In severe cases, the infection can lead to tissue death known as
gangrene. It can also spread to the bone.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with:
The goal is to eliminate the infection and reduce discomfort. Most cases resolve after a week or two of treatment.
Hospital care may be needed if you have:
- Severe cellulitis
- Diabetes or a weakened immune system
- An infection on your face
Antibiotics may be taken by mouth or injected into a muscle or vein. The method will depend on the severity of the infection. The antibiotic chosen will depend on the bacteria causing the infection. Pain medication may also be prescribed.
This may include:
- Elevating the infected area higher than your heart
- Changing the dressings as directed by your doctor
- Applying warm compresses
- Protecting your skin from additional injury
- Avoiding scratching or rubbing the area
If you have an infected wound, it will need to be cleaned. Dead tissue may be removed.
In certain situations, a collection of pus may develop. This is called an
abscess. It can be drained.
To reduce your risk of getting cellulitis:
- Keep your skin clean.
- Moisturize dry skin with lotion.
Avoid injury to the skin:
- Wear protective gear in sports.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when hiking.
- Wear sandals when at the beach, rather than going barefoot.
- Be careful around animals. Treat pets with respect to avoid bites.
- Do not swim in natural waters if you have cuts or sores.
- Try not to cut yourself during fishing or other water sports.
If a small cut, bite, or other injury occurs, carefully care for the wound:
- Clean cuts or scrapes with soap and water.
- Apply antibiotic ointment.
- Cover wounds with a bandage or dressing.
- Do not scratch wounds.
- Call the doctor right away if the area becomes red or inflamed.
- Seek prompt medical care for larger wounds or bites.
- Wash your hands after coming in contact with fish, poultry, eggs, or meat. Do not handle these items if you have cuts or sores.
- If your legs tend to swell, elevate them several times a day and wear support stockings.
- Get recommended vaccines for children and adults.
Cellulitis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:
http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated August 7, 2014. Accessed September 9, 2014.
Cellulitis. Wexner Medical Center website. Available at:
http://medicalcenter.osu.edu/patientcare/healthcare_services/skin_conditions/skin_infections/bacterial_skin_infections/cellulitis/Pages/index.aspx. Accessed September 9, 2014.
Stevens DL, Bisno AL, et al. Practice guidelines for the diagnosis and management of skin and soft-tissue infections.
Clin Infect Dis.
Last reviewed August 2014 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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