Cellulitis – a common skin infection

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Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection affecting the deep layers of skin along with the layer of fat just beneath skin.  It is not the same thing as impetigo which is more of a superficial skin infection – an infection of cellulitis goes much deeper into the skins layers involving the dermis and subcutaneous tissue.

Middle-age and older adults are the primary victims of cellulitis.  A common cause of how it gets started is from a cut or crack in skin allowing bacteria to enter where they begin to grow and multiply.

Cellulitis can be effectively treated with antibiotics but it needs to be treated as soon as possible.  Failing to treat it right away allows cellulitis to spread to lymph nodes and the bloodstream where it can quickly become life-threatening. 

Symptoms of cellulitis

The usual place for cellulitis to develop is in the lower legs but it can occur in other areas such as the face and arms.  Symptoms of cellulitis include the skin surface area appearing red and swollen, painful and warm to the touch.  If left untreated, the area of redness can expand.

Symptoms typically occur on one side of the body and can include:

·      Tenderness

·      Swelling

·      Warmth

·      Fever

·      Red spots

·      Blisters

·      Skin dimpling

·      Pain

·      Red area of skin that tends to expand

Risk factors and causes of cellulitis

Anyone can be at risk of developing cellulitis but there are certain factors that can increase that risk:

·      Having any cut, wound or openings in the skin is an opportunity for bacteria to enter.  Even small openings such as an insect bite or a small scratch, can be entryways for an infection to set in.

·      Certain preexisting skin conditions increase the chance of cellulitis.  Anyone with athlete’s foot, dermatitis or eczema where the skin can break or crack, can allow a cellulitis infection to occur.  The skin condition of broken blisters of shingles is a prime example of how cellulitis can begin.

·      Sometimes after surgeries, skin can swell due to damage of the veins (edema) or to the lymphatic system (lymphedema).  When skin is stretched or swollen it can crack allowing an entry point for bacteria. 

·      Any previous incidences of cellulitis can increase the risk.

·      The condition of peripheral neuropathy which causes a reduced sensation and feeling particularly in the extremities can increase the risk of cellulitis.

·      Certain disease conditions such as diabetes or cancer can lead to cellulitis.  These diseases often make a person more prone to infections because of a weakened immune system or poor circulation.

Diagnosing cellulitis

From the onset of symptoms occurring with cellulitis, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from a doctor as soon as possible.  A doctor will want to rule out any other possible conditions such as a blood clot in a leg vein or a reaction to a drug or a skin irritant (contact dermatitis), lymphedema, or an infected joint. 

By reviewing medical history and examining the skin for features suggesting cellulitis, a doctor can make an accurate diagnosis.  A blood test is not necessary unless the infection is widespread or is severe.  Then they will want to make sure the bloodstream is not infected and to determine what specific type of bacteria has caused it.

Treating cellulitis

Antibiotics are what will treat cellulitis.  Depending on the suspected cause, a doctor may recommend an antibiotic that targets a particular type of bacterium.  A five to 14 day course of antibiotics is typically prescribed depending on the severity of the infection.  Even though most people will feel much better within two or three days, it is important keep taking the entire course of medication to completely eliminate the bacteria.

While the infection is healing, a person can take steps to alleviate swelling by using cool, wet compresses to the area to relive discomfort and to elevate the area in which the infection has occurred in.

Most cases of cellulitis clear up with the use of antibiotics with complications being rare.  Hospitalization may be required if the infection becomes severe such as entering into the bloodstream.