Last Edited: April 10th, 2012

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Cellulitis is the medical term for inflammation and infection of the area just under your skin. Most often, cellulitis develops as a secondary consequence of a cut, a sore or an insect bite. Occasionally, though, cellulitis will develop without any apparent breach in the skin’s integrity.

Cellulitis is caused by bacterial infection. The causative organisms most often are streptococcus or staphylococcus. In people with compromised immune systems, cellulitis poses a significant health threat. Untreated, the bacterial infection that causes cellulitis can spread to the lymph nodes, the blood or deeper body tissues, causing serious illness. The recommended treatment for cellulitis is antibiotics.

Cellulitis Signs and Symptoms

Every cut or scratch does not inevitably progress to cellulitis. Cellulitis is characterized by:

  • Redness and swelling at the site of the cut or bite
  • Tenderness and pain to the touch
  • Red streaks extending outward from the point of infection
  • Fever and chills
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Cellulitis can spread quickly through your bloodstream to other parts of your body, so it’s important to schedule an appointment with your health care provider if you suspect you have cellulitis.

Where Does Cellulitis Occur?

Cellulitis can occur on any part of the body. The most common site, however, are the lower legs.

Cellulitis that occurs on the face constitutes a medical emergency because of its proximity to brain sinuses and the possibility that it will develop into meningitis.

Washing wounds immediately with soap and water go a long way toward preventing subsequent cellulitis infections. Applying an antibiotic ointment will also help minimize your chances of developing the condition.

How Is Cellulitis Diagnosed?

Typically, laboratory tests are not involved in the diagnosis of cellulitis. Your health care will diagnose the condition on the basis of your medical history and clinical presentation.

If your health care provider can see an injury like a cut, an abrasion or an insect bite, he or she is more likely to diagnose the condition. Cellulitis isn’t always caused by puncture wounds, however. People have developed cellulitis as the result of burns or athlete foot infections.

Some types of people are more prone to developing cellulitis than others. People with preexisting conditions that weaken their immune systems or a history of skin disorders are more prone to developing cellulitis.

Cellulitis Treatment

The typical treatment for cellulitis is a course of oral antibiotics. Some staphylococcus bacteria, however, are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Cellulitis conditions caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus are increasing and are considered a medical emergency.

The antibiotics should begin working within three days. If they do not, it is very important to let your health care provider know so that another form of treatment can be initiated.

Even when your symptoms do disappear after a few days, you will generally have to take the antibiotic for two weeks. If you stop taking the antibiotic, it’s likely that small colonies of the causative bacteria will remain, and that they will develop a resistance to antibiotics.

Over the counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen will control the pain associated with cellulitis.