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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger HendersonReviewed on 29.04.2024 | 3 minutes read

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and tissues just under the skin (subcutaneous tissue) caused by bacteria. These bacteria are typically a type called staphylococcus aureus and group A beta-haemolytic streptococcus that enter broken or normal skin and spread to the tissue under the skin. This causes infection and cellulitis.

This problem can affect almost any part of the body but it occurs most commonly in areas that have been damaged or inflamed. Anyone, at any age, can develop cellulitis but you are at increased risk of developing it if you smoke, have lowered immunity, or have diabetes or poor circulation.

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

There are a range of symptoms here, varying from mild to severe. These include:

  • redness of the skin
  • warmth
  • swelling
  • tenderness or pain in an area of skin
  • a discharge, such as leaking yellow clear fluid or pus.

The infection can sometimes spread to the rest of the body and in this case the lymph nodes may swell and be noticed as a tender lump in the groin and armpit. You may also have fevers, sweats and vomiting.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Most cases of cellulitis need to be treated with antibiotics but there are other things you can do to help alongside treatment:

  • Get plenty of rest. This gives your body a chance to fight the infection.
  • Raise the area of the body involved as high as possible. This will ease pain, help drainage and reduce swelling.
  • Take pain-relieving medications such as paracetamol. Please check the label for how much to take and how often. The pain eases once the infection starts getting better.

*Always take the full course of any antibiotics that have been prescribed.

Cellulitis is spread by skin-to-skin contact or by touching infected surfaces so wash your hands regularly, bathe or shower daily and cover the area with a gauze dressing.

To help avoid developing cellulitis in the first place, try to avoid scratching or breaking the skin. If this can't be helped, try to clean any breaks to the skin well to reduce the risk of infection.

When should I see my doctor?

You should see your doctor urgently if you have symptoms of cellulitis. The area of redness may increase in size but should start to improve after a couple of days of antibiotic treatment. It can be useful to draw around the edge of the red area to see if the size of the red area is increasing or decreasing.

You should seek urgent medical attention if you have a temperature, feel extremely unwell, if the area is extremely painful or if the area of redness is large or increasing in size quickly.

What will my doctor do?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, your medical history and any medications you take. They will then examine the area in question and may take your temperature, blood pressure and heart rate readings. The diagnosis of cellulitis is usually made from the clinical presentation alone, and no specific tests are required. If they are, these may include taking a swab from the skin and sending it to the laboratory for testing, as well as blood tests and sometimes X-rays or scans.

If cellulitis is suspected, then you will be given a course of antibiotic tablets. If the cellulitis is severe, the doctor may refer you to the hospital for review and possible antibiotic treatment through a drip.

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 29.04.2024
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