How serious is it?
One day while you are drying off from your shower, you notice a swollen, red area on your ankle. It’s slightly tender when you touch it but otherwise isn’t too bad. You go about your day and notice a nagging aching in your ankle, but you don’t think much about it. By the time you get your sock off when you get home, you notice the swollen area has doubled in size and become even more painful. What is going on? Is it serious? Do you need to get treatment right away?
Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection caused by streptococcus or staphylococcus entering your body through a break in your skin. This can come from a cut, ulcer, athlete’s foot infection, dermatitis, animal bite, or recent surgical incision site. This infection is serious because if it isn’t treated, it can spread to your lymph nodes and bloodstream, causing it to become life-threatening. It’s typically more common on your lower legs but can be found anywhere on your body, including your face and arms. It isn’t usually spread by coming into contact with a person who has it.
Symptoms commonly occur on one side of the body and include redness to the affected area that expands, swelling, tenderness, pain, the area is warm to the touch, red spots, blisters, skin dimpling, and fever. If you notice any of these signs, especially if the site is red, swollen, tender, warm, and expanding, please see your doctor as soon as possible. If you have these symptoms and the area is changing rapidly, and you have a fever, go to the nearest emergency department. If the infection spreads beyond your skin to the next deeper layer of tissue (fascial lining), it is called necrotizing fasciitis and is a critical emergency. This is why it is essential not to delay seeking treatment for a cellulitis infection.
If caught early enough, the primary cellulitis treatment is antibiotic pills you take at home. It’s essential to let your doctor know how your body is responding to treatment on or before the third day after you start taking the pills. This is to make sure that the infection is going away. Even if your symptoms clear up after a few days, it’s essential to take the antibiotic as directed by your doctor and finish all the pills to kill any residual bacteria in your body. Otherwise, the infection could come back. It can be helpful to elevate the affected area to reduce swelling and apply a cool, damp cloth to provide relief from the pain and warmth. Your doctor may also recommend using over-the-counter pain medicine. If your cellulitis isn’t getting better, the symptoms are spreading, or you have a high fever, your doctor might admit you to the hospital to give you antibiotics through an intravenous (IV) catheter.
Ideally, you want to prevent cellulitis from occurring in the first place. The best way to do this is to take care of any wounds you have properly. Gently wash the area with soap and water daily, apply a protective cream/ointment and cover it with a bandage to prevent dirt and germs from getting to the site. Remember to change the dressing daily or if it becomes soiled or wet. Keep an eye out for signs of infection, such as redness, pain, and drainage.
Individuals with diabetes or poor circulation need to take additional safety measures. Inspect your feet daily for any sores or changes. While keeping your feet clean/dry is vital, you should also wash them daily (just don’t soak them). It’s key to moisturize your feet to prevent cracking (just don’t get lotion between your toes because this can lead to fungal infections). It’s essential to be careful while trimming toenails. Always wear clean/dry socks and well-cushioned shoes that fit appropriately. Be sure to seek prompt treatment for any infections.
Cellulitis might initially look harmless but can quickly become a serious, life-threatening infection. Now that you know what to look for, you’ll be able to identify when you should seek treatment. If you have any questions or concerns, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Academy of Dermatology’s Cellulitis page at https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/rashes/cellulitis