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 live 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 chance 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 waterA cut or abrasionBacteria 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
drugsTaking steroids on a regular basisUndergoing surgeryRetaining fluidsA fungal infection of the footHandling 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:
RednessPain or tendernessSwellingWarmthStreaking—spreading of rednessSwollen lymph nodesFever or chillsFatigueConfusion
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 infectionBlood 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 or other structures.
Images may be taken of your bodily structures. This can be done with: X-rayMRI scanCT scanBone scan
The goal is to eliminate the infection and reduce discomfort. Most cases resolve after 1-2 weeks of treatment.
Hospital care may be needed if you have: Severe cellulitisDiabetes or a weakened immune systemAn 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 heartChanging any dressings as directed by your doctorApplying warm compressesProtecting your skin from additional injuryAvoiding 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 help reduce your chance of cellulitis: Keep your skin clean and dry.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 and erysipelas. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website. Available at:
http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/cellulitiserysipelas/pages/default.aspx. Updated November 8, 2013. Accessed August 5, 2015.
Stevens DL, Bisno AL, Chambers HF, et al. Practice guidelines for the diagnosis and management of skin and soft tissue infections: 2014 update by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Clin Infect Dis. 2014;59(2):147-159.
Last reviewed September 2016 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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