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Skin Disorder 101: What is Cellulitis?

Dec 01, 2021

Skin Disorder 101: What is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is one of the many skin conditions that can affect people with weakened immune systems or certain medical conditions. This common skin infection is characterised by an inflammation of the skin and tissues just underneath it. It usually begins as a skin abscess. This warm, reddened area of swollen tissue develops in response to bacteria that have entered through a cut or break in the skin. The swelling becomes increasingly painful over time. Cellulitis spreads quickly, so it's important to seek treatment right away.

Oftentimes cellulitis is brought on by streptococcus A-type bacteria, which are common in the throat and cause strep throat. Symptoms usually develop within one to three days after initial infection with cellulitis-causing bacteria, although cellulitis can also be caused by different types of bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus (which is responsible for toxic shock syndrome) and E. coli (which is responsible for urinary tract infection).

The affected area may begin to feel warm and tender within one to three days after cellulitis has begun. Over time, cellulitis can spread quickly and cause fever, swollen lymph nodes and intense pain at the cellulitis site.

Cellulitis basics - infograpicsSource: JAMA Dermatology

Symptoms of Cellulitis

The signs of infection due to cellulitis vary depending on the type of bacteria that caused it. They may appear suddenly or slowly develop. Here, below, are the common symptoms of cellulitis:

  • Warmth or redness to the skin
  • Painful and swollen skin due to enlarged lymph nodes
  • Skin rashes
  • Pain
  • Tenderness at the infected site

Additional symptoms include fever, blisters or skin lesions on the legs, headache, fatigue, chills and weakness. Cellulitis does not usually cause people any long-term harm, although it can sometimes spread around your body.

Causes of Cellulitis

While not all bacterial skin infections can be transmitted from person to person, cellulitis is an exception. It can be triggered by an infection from scabies parasites, which occurs from scratching the itch from the infestation or from sharing contaminated beddings or clothing with someone with scabies.

Cellulitis infections can also be a result of radiation therapy or steroid injections into the cellulitis site. Sometimes cellulitis is caused by insect bites. This is especially true in children and infants since it is easier for them to scratch their faces when they are bitten, resulting in facial cellulitis. 

Other risk factors for developing cellulitis symptoms are:

  • Skin ulcers
  • Dry skin and skin disorders like eczema
  • Weakened immune system
  • Obesity
  • People with lymphoedema or diabetes may develop secondary infection

Cellulitis can become serious depending on how deep the bacteria has embedded itself into your body. In this case, the cellulitis may quickly spread throughout your entire body and turn into a cellulitis sepsis.

Cellulitis sepsis requires immediate medical attention as it can cause organ failure, deadly blood infections and other health complications.

Treatment for Cellulitis

The management of cellulitis begins with obtaining a proper diagnosis from a medical professional. A physical exam and blood tests are typically performed to determine whether a streptococcal infection is present. A biopsy of subcutaneous tissue can also be performed to determine the true nature of a patient's clinical manifestations.

Since cellulitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection, a typical medical treatment often involves antibiotic therapy. Your doctor may give you a prescription for an antibiotic ointment, oral antibiotics, or an intravenous (IV) antibiotic treatment. Severe cellulitis is usually treated with penicillin or amoxicillin.

If bacterial infections do not respond well to antibiotics, surgery may be required to drain the cellulitis site or remove dead tissue from it. The good news is that there are natural remedies that may be effective in the treatment of cellulitis. If you're hesitant about antibiotic treatment, let alone surgical incisions, the following are worthwhile options:

Tea tree oil

A study shows that tea tree oil was found to be a promising alternative to topical antibiotics in fighting off methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSRA), which causes cellulitis.

Liver cleanses

A liver cleanse may help eliminate cellulitis-causing bacteria and viruses from the body, which can reduce cellulitis symptoms.

Vitamin C

Eating fruits and vegetables packed with the antioxidant properties of vitamin C, such as citrus fruits, bell peppers and potatoes, may help fight the free radicals that cellulitis-causing bacteria create in your skin. A qualified nutritionist can advise you on which nutritional supplements can fill in the void if you lack vitamin C.

Prevention of Cellulitis

Since cellulitis is usually caused by skin cuts or breaks, preventing cellulitis boils down to keeping the skin clean and clear. Cellulites spares no one, not even healthy people. That said, it's important to make sure you have no open sores or cuts anywhere on your skin before you go swimming, lest cellulitis develops from bacteria in water.

While cellulitis most commonly appears in the legs, care should be taken with all skin breaks such as scrapes, cuts and insect bites. Cellulitis can quickly become life threatening if left untreated or by delaying treatment until symptoms worsen. This is especially dangerous when it occurs on the lower body and spreads to the bloodstream.

It is not always easy to diagnose cellulitis because there are so many conditions that can produce its symptoms. Cellulitis may appear after an injury or insect bite and spread to other areas in a blink of an eye, so it's important for individuals who are at risk to be able to detect its signs and seek treatment as soon as possible rather than wait for systemic symptoms.

FAQs About Cellulitis

What does the beginning of cellulitis look like?

At the outset of a cellulitis infection, the skin appears pinkish and tender. As the infection spreads, it develops into deep red blisters and the size increases.

Is cellulitis caused by poor hygiene?

Cellulitis often occurs in injured parts of the skin. However, poor hygiene may also contribute. It is also common for cellulitis to be caused by poor vein function or peripheral arterial disease.

Does cellulitis stay in your system forever?

Symptoms of cellulitis usually disappear within a few days or weeks after starting treatment. Left untreated, it can spread throughout the body and cause a variety of complications.

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