Cellulitis causes pain, blindness, even death. How do you get cellulitis? Find out your risk and how to treat this dangerous skin infection.
Cellulitis affects the deepest layers of the skin, known as the subcutis and hypodermis. It is most commonly caused by Staphylococcus, or staph, bacteria and occasionally by types of Streptococcus, or strep.
Localized cellulitis often resolves quickly with treatment. Severe cellulitis, however, can cause serious complications. These include deep skin infections, such as abscesses; inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, known as meningitis; blindness; blood poisoning, and even death.
There are 14.5 million cases of cellulitis every year in the United States alone. In order to keep yourself safe and prevent serious complications, it’s important to know how do you get cellulitis and what you should do if you suspect you have an infection.
How do you get cellulitis?
You usually get cellulitis when an injury becomes infected with bacteria. Injuries that can develop cellulitis infections include:
- Abrasions, scrapes, or puncture wounds
- Insect bites
- Skin problems, such as psoriasis, eczema, or acne
- Burns or sores
- Fungal infections
- Surgical wounds
If you have a weakened immune system due to cancer or certain medications, you are more likely to develop cellulitis because your body is less able to fight off a bacterial infection. Your risk is also higher if you have poor circulation due to conditions such as diabetes or peripheral artery disease.
Symptoms of cellulitis
Early symptoms of cellulitis are irritation and inflammation of the skin. In some cases, infections can be mistaken for pimples or boils. Other symptoms of cellulitis include:
- Redness and swelling
- Tenderness, warmth, and pain
- Headache, chills, or low fever
Some symptoms of cellulitis may look similar to necrotizing fasciitis, but cellulitis is not a flesh-eating bacteria. Severe cases, though, can still be deadly. If you notice these more severe symptoms, you should go to an emergency room immediately:
- Large areas of inflamed, red skin
- Red streaks spreading out from an injury
- Red or swollen area around your eyes or ears
- Numbness or tingling in your hands, arms, feet, or legs
- Fever over 104° F
- Skin that appears black
Cellulitis of the eye
Cellulitis can develop in the soft tissues of your eye. Cellulitis of the eye most often affects children, though it can occur in adults as well. There are two variations.
Periorbital cellulitis is an infection of the eyelid or skin around the eye. It usually occurs when an injury or bug bite in these areas becomes infected. Symptoms include:
- Redness around the eye or the white of the eye
- Swelling of the eyelid or around the eye
Periorbital cellulitis does not cause severe pain or blindness. However, if the bacteria spread, it can develop into orbital cellulitis.
Orbital cellulitis occurs when the fat and muscle around your eye become infected. It can develop from milder cellulitis or a bacterial sinus infection, affecting your cheeks, eyelids, and eyebrows. Symptoms include:
- Painful swelling of eyelids, eyebrows, or cheeks
- Bulging eyes
- Shiny, purple, or red eyelid
- Decreased vision
- Fever or general ill feeling
- Difficult or painful eye movements
This type of cellulitis of the eye can cause blindness, hearing loss, or death. If you experience symptoms of either orbital or periorbital cellulitis, seek medical help immediately.
Cellulitis of the face
- Pain and swelling
- Red, tight, or glossy areas on the face
- Sores or rashes that grow quickly
- Warmth or tenderness
- Abscesses with pus
Cellulitis of the face also commonly occurs after dental surgery or as a result of poor dental care. Abscesses, cavities, open gum sores, or other oral injuries can develop infections that cause bacteria to enter the deep tissue of the face. Facial cellulitis can be life-threatening and expensive to treat, but it can often be prevented through regular dental care.
Like other forms of cellulitis, cellulitis of the face requires immediate medical intervention.
How do you treat cellulitis?
Because it is a bacterial infection, cellulitis is treated with topical or oral antibiotics, which must be prescribed by a doctor.
Cool, wet dressing on the site of the infection, as well as elevating any affected limbs, can help relieve pain, and anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen can reduce swelling. The area of infection should be kept clean while you rest and give your body time to heal.
The most severe cellulitis infections require intravenous antibiotics and in some cases surgery to remove dead tissue. If you have severe cellulitis, you will likely need to be hospitalized for at least a week to completely treat the infection.
September 25, 2017
Janet O’Dell, RN