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Edited by Dr Claudia Pastides, 24th April 2019

What is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is an infection which affects the deeper layers of your skin and the tissues which surround it. The affected area will look red and inflamed, and may feel hot to the touch. The condition most commonly occurs in the legs, but it can happen anywhere on the body, and affect anyone.

Cellulitis is very different from cellulite, which is the dimpled skin people find on their thighs, bottoms and tummies. Cellulite is not in any way related to cellulitis.

Cellulitis can be serious if not treated quickly with appropriate medication, often antibiotics. The infection can spread deeper into the skin or to other areas of the body, causing sepsis or necrotizing fasciitis, which are life-threatening if not treated.

Read on to discover the early signs and symptoms of cellulitis - and speak with a doctor today if you believe you may be suffering from this condition.

Causes of cellulitis

Cellulitis is usually the result of a bacterial infection, which has entered the body through a cut, a graze or a bite. The bacteria spreads to the deeper layers of the skin, causing worsening symptoms. In rare cases, cellulitis can also be caused by fungal infections.

People more at risk of developing cellulitis:

  • Have had cellulitis before
  • Have poor circulation in their limbs
  • Have a weakened immune system for any reason
  • Have diabetes
  • Use intravenous drugs
  • Have lymphoedema, a condition where fluid builds up under the skin
  • Have a wound

Symptoms of cellulitis

Cellulitis causes skin to become swollen and red. It may be painful, and warm to the touch. As cellulitis is an infection, it is accompanied by some of the typical side effects of an infection, including a high temperature, feeling unwell or swollen glands.

In some rare cases, cellulitis can develop into far more serious illnesses, including sepsis, or spread to other parts of the body. If you start to experience dizzy spells, feel cold or clammy, vomiting, heart palpitations, or if the affected area of skin expands rapidly, seek medical attention immediately.

Treatment for cellulitis

As with many bacterial infections, cellulitis is treated with a course of antibiotics.

For milder cases, oral antibiotics (antibiotic tablets that are swallowed) are prescribed to clear the infection. Most people make a full recovery within a week or so. In more serious cases, people are referred to a hospital for treatment, to be more closely monitored and given antibiotics straight into a vein using a drip.

Whilst recovering, over the counter pain relief can help with discomfort. Drinking plenty of fluids, regularly moving the affected joint or limb, and keeping the affected area elevated to reduce swelling can all be helpful.

Frequently asked questions about cellulitis

1. What is the best treatment for cellulitis?

The best treatment for cellulitis caused by bacteria is antibiotics. There are a few different antibiotics that are used, depending on the location of cellulitis or if the person affected has other medical problems.

For bacterial cellulitis that can be treated safely in the community and without admission to hospital, flucloxacillin for 5-7 days is usually prescribed. If allergic to penicillin, clarithromycin or doxycycline are recommended. If pregnant, erythromycin is usually advised.

Cellulitis that occurs on the face (near the eyes or nose) is often treated with co-amoxiclav (Augmentin) for 7 days, or clarithromycin (if allergic to penicillin).

People with lymphoedema are often prescribed amoxicillin, sometimes together with flucloxacillin, for 14 days or more.

Antibiotic choice varies depending on the country or area you live and what bacteria is likely to be causing the infection.

2. How long does it take for cellulitis to clear up?

Most people start to feel better and notice an improvement in their cellulitis within 3 or 4 days, although it is important to finish the full prescribed course of antibiotics. By a week or two, the skin is typically back to normal.

3. Can cellulitis go away on its own?

It isn’t recommended to leave cellulitis untreated as it can lead to life-threatening complications, such as sepsis and necrotizing fasciitis. Treatment speeds up the recovery and reduces the risk of complications, so it is important to speak to a doctor if you think you might have cellulitis.

4. How dangerous is cellulitis infection?

Cellulitis isn’t always dangerous but it has the potential to be, especially if the person also has other health problems, is very young (under 1 year old) or frail. Fortunately, with prompt treatment, cellulitis can be cured quickly in most people and without any complications.

If you think you might be suffering from cellulitis, contact a GP today to discuss it.