Cellulitis: What You Must Know about Warm, Red, and Swollen Skin


What Causes Cellulitis?
Similar to impetigo, another common skin infection, cellulitis is often caused by Streptococcus (“strep”) or Staphylococcus (“staph”) bacteria. These bacteria usually live on the skin of healthy people but can enter the body through a break in the skin. Where impetigo is a superficial skin infection, cellulitis occurs when the bacteria get into the deeper tissue under the skin and overgrow. Unlike impetigo, cellulitis is not contagious.

Cellulitis affects both males and females and can occur at any age but is most common in men aged 45-65. The causes of cellulitis are strongly correlated with age and immune status, meaning older individuals and those with weakened immune systems (due to illness or medications) have a higher risk of developing cellulitis. So do people with diabetes, poor blood circulation (especially in the legs), and obesity. However, any person is vulnerable if they have any type of break in the skin, including small cracks or fissures. Sometimes these breaks in the skin aren’t even noticed. A new body piercing, a scratch (self-inflicted or from another object), or an insect bite – anything that gives the strep or staph bacteria a place to enter the body, multiply, and overgrow – can result in cellulitis.

Cleanliness is the best protection against cellulitis that develops as a result of a break in the skin. Keep fingernails trimmed to prevent scratching, wash hands regularly, and keep broken skin clean and covered.

Symptoms of Cellulitis
Typical characteristics of cellulitis include skin that is:

  • Warm
  • Tender
  • Swollen
  • Pinkish or red in the infected area.

The infection is diffuse (appears spread out), with poorly defined borders. An infected person will often have fever, chills, and a feeling of general discomfort. If the infection goes untreated, pockets of pus can develop. Worse yet, the bacteria may spread into the bloodstream, which can be life-threatening. The most common areas for cellulitis are the lower legs, arms or hands, or the face. Those who have had cellulitis describe a throbbing, painful sensation as if the skin is pulled too tight. Others have described it as feeling like a sunburn. Overall, it can be extremely uncomfortable and frightening. The redness can spread quickly within hours.

Some Things to Consider with Cellulitis
There is no self-treatment available for cellulitis. If you have pinkish-red, swollen skin that feels warm to the touch, contact your physician immediately. In the meantime, you can keep the infected area elevated to help minimize swelling. Your physician will prescribe an antibiotic to treat your cellulitis. Be sure to complete the full course of treatment. Your doctor will want to talk to you about managing any underlying conditions you may have that increase your risk of future cellulitis infections.

Links: Skinsight Resource: CellulitisThe Itchy, Crusty, or Blistered Skin of Impetigo: Advice on This Common Skin Condition

Published on 03/19/2012 | Last updated on 10/18/2018