Watch for These Early Signs and Symptoms of Cellulitis
Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection that is fairly common but can lead to potentially serious complications if left untreated. The deep infection is caused by bacteria and most commonly affects the lower legs, according to John Hopkins Medicine. Other regions of the body where cellulitis can develop are the arms, around the mouth, eyes, and anus, or on the stomach. Although healthy skin can be affected by an infection, an injury typically occurs which cracks or breaks the skin’s surface, through which bacteria can enter. The most common type of bacteria involved in cellulitis are streptococcus (strep) and staphylococcus (staph). Infection sometimes starts following a trauma or surgery. Bacteria can also enter via cuts, an ulcer, dermatitis, burns, animal bite wounds, athlete’s foot, or where there is a catheter. Once through the protective outer layer of the skin, bacteria begin to multiply, create harmful chemicals, and cause inflammation, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Skin that becomes infected can start to look red. Skin typically becomes painful, swollen, and warm to touch, according to Mayo Clinic.
Factors that can increase the odds of developing cellulitis include a weakened immune system, sometimes caused by illnesses such as diabetes, leukemia or HIV/AIDS. People who already struggle with challenging skin conditions, such as eczema or shingles, already tend to have more broken skin entry points. Mayo Clinic points to the development of lymphedema or chronic swelling in the arms and legs, as another risk factor, as well as a history of cellulitis and being overweight.
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis to look for include appearance of blisters, red spots, and skin dimpling. Additionally, swelling, pain, fever, and a red patch of skin on one side of the body that tends to spread are also signs to watch for. According to Harvard Health Publishing, red streaks may appear to spread across the skin. These are likely caused by enlarged lymph nodes, or swollen glands, near the infection area as well as infection of the blood vessels that carry tissue fluid, otherwise referred to as lymph. If bacteria get into the bloodstream, more severe cases of cellulitis can lead to low blood pressure and blood poisoning. Bloodstream infections due to cellulitis can be extremely dangerous for populations at a greater risk of complications due to age (very young or very old), a compromised immune system, or abnormalities of the heart valves.
Mayo Clinic point out that identifying and treating cellulitis as early as possible is vital, as this can help stop the rapid spread of the infection throughout other areas of the body. A medical professional, doctor or dermatologist, can usually diagnose the infection by simply looking at the affected area of the skin. Mild cases of cellulitis can be treated at home with prescribed oral antibiotics. The course of treatment usually lasts between 5-14 days altogether. People with a compromised immune system occasionally need to take longer courses of antibiotics, while some are required to take more than one single type of prescription medication to treat both strep and staph. Using warm compresses and elevating the affected area(s) has been known to improve cases and reduce discomfort. As Harvard Health Publishing notes, most cases improve quite rapidly once a course of antibiotics has begun. Doctors determine which antibiotic should be used based on the severity and site of infection. Severe cellulitis sometimes requires intravenous antibiotic treatment at the hospital. This medication is delivered into the veins directly versus orally. Within two or three of starting treatment, if pain, swelling, and redness continue to develop, or if blisters appear, this may be a sign of community-acquired MRSA infection and additional medical support will be required. This type of skin infection can be very difficult to treat with typical antibiotics and can lead to more health complications.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends caring for wounds and covering affected skin to help promote healing. Rest also allows the body time and energy to heal and can potentially prevent the infection from getting worse. Treating other medical conditions, such as eczema or athlete’s foot, simultaneously can help to address spread of the bacteria. Finally, John Hopkins Medicine suggests washing hands often, using basic healthy personal hygiene practices, and wearing protective footwear to prevent cellulitis. As well, it is recommended to treat dry and possibly cracked skin by regularly applying hydrating lotion and wearing gloves during gardening.
As with any suspected medical condition, it is always important to seek out reliable medical information and contact medical professionals when needed. Information about early symptoms, signs, and promising treatment can be helpful to know when considering how to effectively deal with cellulitis.
American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)
Harvard Medical School/Harvard Health Publishing
John Hopkins Medicine