Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin. Bacteria get into the skin through a cut, scrape, or other wound. Cellulitis can also affect the deeper layers of connective tissue beneath your skin and, in severe cases, spread to your lymph nodes.
Cellulitis most often affects the legs, but it may also affect the arms, face, and scalp. Most times, taking antibiotics cures cellulitis. However, some people can have serious complications. Without treatment, it can become life-threatening.
Signs and Symptoms
What Causes It?
Cellulitis is caused by bacteria, most often streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus, which get into the body through a break in the skin:
Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is a more serious type of staph infection and is on the rise. Erysipelas, a type of cellulitis involving the lymph system, is often preceded by an upper respiratory infections. Infants, young children, and the elderly are most likely to get erysipelas, which is generally caused by streptococcal infection.
Who's Most At Risk?
You are at risk for developing cellulitis if you have the following:
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
If you have symptoms of cellulitis, you should see your doctor right away. If you have a fever with a rash, go to the emergency room. Your health care provider will do a thorough physical examination to see what is causing the condition and which antibiotic to prescribe. Your provider may also order blood tests and imaging.
To help prevent cellulitis:
Cellulitis must be treated with antibiotics. To help ease pain, raise the affected arms or legs, keep still, and apply cool, wet, sterile bandages. If your symptoms are not better after a few days, you may need hospitalization so doctors can give you antibiotics intravenously (IV).
Your health care provider will prescribe antibiotics for your infection, as well as pain relievers if needed. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic that works against both staph and strep, such as cephalexin (Keflex). It is important to take the entire course of antibiotics, even if your symptoms get better before you finish.
Surgical and Other Procedures
If antibiotics do not work, you may need surgery to drain infected tissue.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
If you have cellulitis, you need to take antibiotics. It can spread rapidly, so you should start antibiotics as soon as possible. Although some alternative therapies may reduce the risk of getting cellulitis, or ease some of the symptoms when used along with conventional care, most haven't been tested in scientific studies.
You should never treat cellulitis with alternative therapies alone. It is important to tell your doctor if you are taking any herbs or supplements because some may interfere with antibiotics.
The following supplements may strengthen the immune system and help skin heal:
Scientists have not studied the way individual nutrients may treat cellulitis, however, flavonoids -- chemicals in fruits, such as citrus, blueberries, grapes; in vegetables, including onions; and in tea and red wine -- seem to help reduce lymphedema, and the risk for cellulitis. The flavonoid quercetin is available as a supplement. Ask your doctor before taking quercetin, because it may interact with a number of medications, including blood thinners. Very high doses have been associated with kidney damage, so DO NOT take quercetin for more than 2 months without taking a break.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of your provider.
Cellulitis should be treated with antibiotics. There are no scientific studies showing that any herbs treat cellulitis, but the following herbs may help strengthen the immune system and kill bacteria on the skin. Never put any herbal preparations on an open wound without asking your doctor first. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you use, because some can interfere with taking antibiotics.
Taken by mouth:
Applied to the skin -- use these only under a doctor's supervision:
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may recommend the following remedies for the treatment of cellulitis based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type, includes your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Seek immediate medical attention if fever and swelling do not subside after 24 hours.
Acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicine practices may help with the underlying cause of cellulitis, and may strengthen the immune system. However, no scientific studies have investigated whether they work specifically for cellulitis. The practitioner should be very careful when piercing skin that may be infected, because there is a risk of spreading the infection further. Talk to your doctor first and use a qualified acupuncturist with experience treating infectious skin disease.
DO NOT use massage if you have an active infection. Massage that promotes lymph drainage, when used with compression and exercise, may help prevent cellulitis.
Prognosis and Possible Complications
Antibiotics usually cure cellulitis. While complications are rare, they can be serious and even life threatening if the infection spreads to the blood. Complications are more common in very young children, the elderly, or in people who have weakened immune systems.
Possible complications include abscesses, gangrene, and thrombophlebitis (inflammation of superficial veins). Some people are prone to have cellulitis come back, often in the same area, leading to permanent skin changes. Gangrene may cause the loss of a limb.
Your health care provider should see you periodically to make sure you have no complications.
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Review Date: 11/20/2016
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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