What Is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis (sel-yuh-LY-tus) is a skin infection that involves areas of tissue below the surface of the skin.

Cellulitis can affect any area of the body, but it's most common on exposed body parts, such as the face, arms, or lower legs.

What Causes Cellulitis?

Many different types of bacteria can cause cellulitis. The most common ones are group A streptococcus and Staphylococcus aureus.

Cellulitis usually begins in an area of broken skin, like a cut, bite, or scratch. People who have body piercings can get cellulitis because the piercing hole is a way for bacteria to get beneath the skin's surface.

But cellulitis can also start in areas where the skin isn't broken, especially in people who have  chronic conditions or who take medicines that affect the immune system.

Cellulitis is not contagious. It can't spread from person to person.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Cellulitis?

Cellulitis begins with a small area of skin that's:

  • tender
  • swollen
  • warm
  • red

As this area begins to spread, a child may begin to feel ill and get a fever and, sometimes, chills and sweats. Swollen lymph nodes (or swollen glands) are sometimes found near the area of infected skin.

The time it takes for symptoms to start varies, depending on which bacteria cause the cellulitis. For example, a child with cellulitis caused by Pasteurella multocida, often found in animal bites, can have symptoms less than 24 hours after the bite. But cellulitis caused by other types of bacteria may not cause symptoms for several days.

How Is Cellulitis Diagnosed?

A doctor can usually diagnose cellulitis by examining the area of affected skin. Sometimes the doctor may check for bacteria by taking blood samples. Positive blood cultures mean that bacteria from the skin infection have spread into the bloodstream. This can cause septicemia (blood poisoning), a serious infection.

How Is Cellulitis Treated?

For a mild case of cellulitis, doctors prescribe antibiotics. These can usually cure cellulitis in 7 to 10 days. Even if your child feels better sooner than that, it's important to take all the antibiotics prescribed. Otherwise, the infection can return.

People with severe cases of cellulitis might need treatment in a hospital with intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

Can Cellulitis Be Prevented?

To prevent cellulitis, protect skin from cuts, bruises, and scrapes. This isn't easy, especially in active kids or those who play sports.

Kids and teens should:

  • Use elbow and knee pads while skating.
  • Wear a bike helmet when riding.
  • Wear shin guards during soccer.
  • Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts while hiking in the woods (this can also protect them from bug bites and stings).
  • Wear sandals on the beach.

When kids do get a cut or scrape, wash it well with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic ointment and cover the wound with an adhesive bandage or gauze. Check wounds often for the first few days to see if any signs of cellulitis begin.

When Should I Call the Doctor?

Call your doctor if:

  • Any area of your child's skin becomes red, warm, and painful — with or without fever and chills. This is even more important if the area is on the hands, feet, or face, or if your child has an illness or condition that suppresses the immune system.
  • Your child gets a large cut or a deep puncture wound.
  • An animal bites your child, especially if the puncture wound is deep. Cellulitis can happen quickly after an animal bite. Human bites can cause skin infections too, so call the doctor if this happens.

What Can Parents Do?

  • Make sure your child takes the antibiotics exactly as directed and for the full course.
  • Follow the doctor's suggestions for treating the area of cellulitis, such as elevating the affected part of the body or applying heat or warm soaks to it.
  • You can give over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease pain and keep a fever down. Follow the package directions about how much to give and how often to give it.

After your child takes antibiotics for 1 or 2 days, the doctor may schedule an office visit to check that the area of cellulitis has improved. This means that the antibiotics are working against the infection.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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