What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a skin infection caused by bacteria.

What increases my risk of cellulitis?

  • An injury that breaks the skin, such as a bite, scratch, or cut

  • A foreign object under the skin

  • A history of cellulitis

  • Shared belongings, such as towels or exercise equipment

  • Drugs that are injected

  • A weak immune system

What are the signs and symptoms of cellulitis?

  • Fever

  • A red, warm, swollen area on your skin

  • Pain when the area is touched

  • Bumps or blisters that may drain pus

  • Bumpy, raised skin that feels like an orange peel

How is cellulitis diagnosed?

Your caregiver may know you have cellulitis by looking at and feeling your skin. Tell your caregiver how long you have had symptoms, and if anything helps decrease your symptoms. Tell him if you have ever had a cellulitis infection. You also may need any of the following tests:

  • Blood tests: You may need blood taken to give caregivers information about how your body is working. The blood may be taken from your hand, arm, or IV.

  • Wound cultures: Cultures are done to show what kind of germ is causing your infection. A swab of the draining area on your skin is sent to a lab for tests.

  • Biopsy: A small piece of tissue from your infected skin is sent to a lab for tests. A biopsy may show what germ is causing your infection. A biopsy may also be done to see if your infection is caused by another kind of skin disorder.

  • X-rays: An x-ray may show if your skin infection has spread.

  • Ultrasound: An ultrasound uses sound waves to show pictures of your tissues on a monitor. An ultrasound may be done to show if there are areas under your skin where pus has collected.

  • CT scan: This test is also called a CAT scan. An x-ray uses a computer to take pictures of your infected skin area. The pictures may show if the infection has spread to other areas. You may be given a dye before the pictures are taken to help caregivers see the pictures better. Tell the caregiver if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast dye.

  • MRI: This scan uses powerful magnets and a computer to take pictures of your infected skin area. An MRI may show if you have pus collecting under your skin. You may be given dye to help the pictures show up better. Do not enter the MRI room with anything metal. Metal can cause serious injury. Tell caregivers if you have any metal in or on your body.

How is cellulitis treated?

Treatment may decrease symptoms, stop the infection from spreading, and cure the infection. You may need any of the following:

  • Medicines:

    • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to kill the bacteria that caused your cellulitis. This may be given as a pill or ointment.

    • Pain medicine: You may be given medicine to take away or decrease pain. Do not wait until the pain is severe before you take your medicine.

  • Abscess drainage: An abscess is a pocket of pus that collects below the skin. An abscess may form when your body is trying to fight an infection. Caregivers drain the pus by putting a needle through your skin into the abscess.

  • Debridement: Caregivers may cut away damaged, dead, or infected tissue to help the wounds heal.

What are the risks of cellulitis?

Your skin may swell and separate from the tissue and bone beneath it. You may have severe swelling in your arms or legs. Your lymph system may become damaged and increase your risk for more cellulitis infections. Your lymph system is part of your body's defense against illness and disease. You may form blood clots in nearby blood vessels. Your skin and nearby tissues may die and start to peel. Your infection may spread to your bone, blood, kidneys, and heart. This can be life-threatening.

How can I prevent cellulitis?

  • Do not share personal items: Do not share items such as towels, clothing, and razors.

  • Clean exercise equipment: Clean the exercise equipment you use with germ-killing cleaner before and after you use it.

  • Clean your wound: Wash it regularly with soap and water. Watch carefully for signs of infection.

  • Take care of your skin: Use lotion to prevent dry, cracked skin.

  • Wash your hands often: This will help prevent the spread of germs.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Elevation: Raise the wound area above the level of your heart as much as possible. This will help decrease swelling and pain. Use pillows, blankets, or rolled towels to prop your arm or leg.

  • Pressure stockings: Compression stockings are tight stockings that help increase your circulation and decrease swelling in your legs. Wear them as directed.

When should I contact my caregiver?

Contact your caregiver if:

  • Your fever or pain does not go away or gets worse.

  • Your wound does not get smaller after 2 days of antibiotics.

  • Your skin is flaking or peeling off.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care?

Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • Your wound gets larger and more painful.

  • You have a thin, gray-brown discharge coming from your infected skin area.

  • You feel a crackling under your skin when you touch it.

  • You have purple dots or bumps on your skin, or you see bleeding under your skin.

  • You have new swelling and pain in your legs.

  • You have sudden trouble breathing or chest pain.

  • The red, warm, swollen area gets larger.

  • You see red streaks coming from the infected area.

  • You feel weak and dizzy.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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