Cellulitis occurs when bacteria infect the deep layers of the skin. That the bacteria attacks deeper layers is an important detail. Unlike a superficial infection, cellulitis can be difficult to treat and might be fatal if it’s left untreated. The bacteria enter the body through an open wound, even a small one, then works down to the deep tissue.
The two types of bacteria that cause most cases of cellulitis are staphylococcus and streptococcus. More and more, a very serious strain of bacteria called MRSA, or methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus, causes cellulitis. In extreme cases the bacteria can attack the fascial lining, a very deep layer of tissue. This leads to what’s called flesh eating streptococcus or necrotizing fasciitis where the affected area seems like it’s being rapidly eaten away. This is an emergency that might necessitate the amputation of limbs to save the patient’s life.
Cellulitis symptoms present as an area of skin that feels hot to the touch and that’s red, swollen or irritated. The infected area of the skin can grow larger and have a tight or shiny look to it. The area can also be tender or painful. The patient might also come down with chills, fever and aching muscles. Other cellulitis symptoms are a sudden rash that spreads quickly and, sometimes, little red spots that erupt on the affected area. Blisters might also appear and burst, though this symptom is less common. The goal of treating cellulitis is to stop the infection from spreading and to prevent what could be deadly complications if the infection invades the bloodstream or the lymphatic system.
Cellulitis can appear on any area of the body and can even attack the eyes, but it’s usually found on the lower part of the legs.
Cellulitis can be chronic, which means that it recurs. When it’s chronic cellulitis can permanently damage the lymphatic system and cause the affected area to swell much of the time.
Doctors treat cellulitis by prescribing antibiotics. The drugs are meant to work against both staphylococcus and streptococcus bacteria. The patient should make sure that she lets her doctor know how and if the antibiotics are working a few days after she starts taking them. Sometimes the patient will need to take the drug for about two weeks and keep the affected part elevated, if that’s possible. The temptation might be to stop taking the drug when the patient starts feeling better and the redness and pain start to go away, but t’s important that the entire course of the drug be taken.
Sometimes, if the oral antibiotic doesn’t work, the patient might need to be put on antibiotics intravenously. This means the drug is fed directly into the bloodstream via an IV line.
People can help prevent cellulitis by treating even small wounds promptly. They should be washed with soap and water and be treated with topical antibiotics. Finger and toenails should be trimmed with care.
People should inspect their feet to make sure there are no overlooked wounds and protect both the hands and feet. Since superficial infections on the skin are contagious, they should also be treated as quickly as possible. This includes seemingly benign infections like athlete’s foot.