What is Cellulitis
The term “cellulitis” refers to an infection of the skin and the soft tissue directly beneath it. It can occur whenever bacteria get past the protective epidermis, the tough outer layer of the skin. This can happen through any scrape, nick, or cut, however small.
Cellulitis, like any other infection, can become a medical emergency if not treated promptly. This can usually be done successfully using commonly available antibiotics, and most patients make a full recovery. The initial stages of infection are usually silent as the bacteria multiply. Signs and symptoms such as visible redness, a feeling of warmth, and pain or discomfort then begin to appear.
Who Gets Cellulitis
Almost any person can develop cellulitis (and a few other relatively common infections) at any time. Certain individuals are at an elevated risk, however. These include:
- Diabetics—patients with diabetes are at an increased risk for several types of infections. Cellulitis among diabetic patients often appears on the lower legs, ankles, and feet.
- Skin trauma—the bacteria which cause cellulitis need broken or disrupted skin in order to enter the body.
- Vein disease—patients with chronic vein disease (venous reflux) are more vulnerable to cellulitis and other infections. This is largely due to skin changes which can occur as blood pools in legs over months or years.
- Other circulatory problems—those with Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD) often have impaired blood flow to the extremities. This can also make a patient more vulnerable to infection, as with chronic vein disease.
- Chronic liver disease—this mostly refers to liver infection (hepatitis) and scarring of the liver (cirrhosis).
- Other active skin conditions—psoriasis, eczema, and even chicken pox all increase the risk of developing cellulitis.
- Open sores or other skin defects—these allow bacteria to enter the skin, just like a small nick or cut. Splinters and other foreign bodies can also easily introduce bacteria deep enough into the skin to cause infection.
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis:
In its earliest stages cellulitis causes no symptoms. It is during this period that the bacterial organisms responsible multiply and become established. This type of infection can (and does) occur anywhere on the body. Areas with poor circulation, like the legs and feet of diabetic patients and others with vascular issues, are especially vulnerable. These areas are also prone to cuts, abrasions, and exposure to dirt, making them doubly susceptible to infection.
Many of the signs and symptoms of cellulitis are actually the body’s immune response to the infection. No two patients or infections are exactly alike, yet the following are almost always present:
- Tenderness or pain
- Erythema (redness)
- A colored or clear discharge (less common)
- Prurience (the presence of pus, less common)
Cellulitis as a medical emergency:
An infection occurs any time bacteria become established on or in the body. This always involves, to a greater or lesser extent, an overwhelming of the body’s immune system. This makes sense—if the bacteria had been destroyed immediately they wouldn’t multiply, and no infection would occur.
Almost any infection can become a medical emergency. Seek immediate attention if you or your health care professionals notice any of the following:
- Red streaks leading away from the primary site of infection.
- Nausea / vomiting.
- A high fever.
- Severe pain.
- Excessive swelling or a “hardening” of the area.
- Excessive or foul-smelling discharge
- Numbness or other sensory changes
This common infection is well known to a large variety of healthcare professionals and is easy to diagnose. A medical history and physical exam will first be taken by your doctor to begin. Many times the signs and symptoms they note are all that’s required to make an accurate diagnosis. This process is known as making a clinical diagnosis. If there’s any doubt then the following tests may be ordered:
- Complete blood lab testing
- An X-ray exam (if your physician believes that a foreign object such as a splinter is involved).
- A bacterial culture (if it’s necessary to know the precise type of bacteria involved).