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Cellulitis is a type of bacterial infection that affects the innermost layers of the skin.

A woman sitting on a doctor's bed examining her leg

Cellulitis is a condition that occurs as a result of bacterial infection of the dermal layer of the skin and sometimes the subcutaneous fat below. Causes of cellulitis are most commonly bacteria of the staphylococcus (staph) and streptococcus (strep) families. 

Cellulitis most commonly affects a leg, although it can occur anywhere. Its onset is often predisposed by a break in the skin such as a bite, burn, blister, new tattoo or recent surgery, and is also seen more often in the elderly, those with weakened immune systems and diabetics

While not contagious, cellulitis can spread to other parts of the body. In rare cases, cellulitis can have serious complications, so should never be left untreated.

What are its symptoms?

Cellulitis symptoms include:

  • Swelling
  • Spreading redness of the skin
  • Streaking redness, an indicator of lymphatic system involvement
  • Tenderness
  • Skin feels warm to the touch
  • Blisters or red spots may develop over the affected area
  • Fever (often a sign that infection has spread and requires urgent medical intervention).

How is it diagnosed? 

Cellulitis can usually be diagnosed by your doctor in the course of a physical examination based on the appearance of the affected area of skin. 

Other tests may be performed to rule out any other possible causes, and a blood sample may be taken to ensure that the infection has not entered the bloodstream.

What are your treatment options? 

Antibiotics are the mainstay in cellulitis treatment. Patients usually respond to treatment within a few days. 

Painkillers may also be prescribed, but be sure to seek medical assistance of cellulitis-related pain appears to be worsening because this may indicate that the infection has spread into the deeper layers of subcutaneous tissue, a potentially life-threatening condition called necrotising fasciitis. 

Can it be prevented? 

Prevention of cellulitis is not always possible, but there are steps that you can take to reduce the risk of this type of infection setting in.

  1. Ensure that you practice good personal hygiene.
  2. Take special precautions when you have an open wound. Make sure to keep it clean and covered, washing it and changing the dressing daily, and be on the look out for signs of infection.
  3. Diabetes sufferers have an increased risk of cellulitis, so should also take special care to inspect their feet and legs regularly and keep skin moisturised to prevent cracking.
  4. In cases of recurrent cellulitis, long-term antibiotic treatment may be necessary.

IMAGE CREDIT: 123rf.com

The accuracy of this information was checked and approved by physician Dr Thomas Blake in May 2016