When is a rash not a rash? When it’s cellulitis, a fairly common skin disease that affects the lower layers of the skin rather than the surface.
Cellulitis can lead to serious health issues if not diagnosed and treated early. Here is what you need to know about cellulitis and how to prevent it.
What is the definition of cellulitis?
Cellulitis is a swelling of the skin and subcutaneous (deeper) tissues. Even though it’s mostly found on the arms or legs, it can infect any part of your body, including the eyelids, ears, nose, or face. The same bacteria that causes cellulitis also causes strep, only instead of infecting the throat, it settles into the skin itself.
Fortunately, this means that the same antibiotics that can treat strep can also treat cellulitis. It’s a fairly standard treatment. The important thing is that it be diagnosed early, before it can spread too far.
Does cellulitis itch? Like an ordinary rash, cellulitis itches and makes the skin red, but there are noticeable differences. Cellulitis tends to start or spread on the lower legs, and on one side of the body instead of both.
When to worry that a rash is actually cellulitis? In cellulitis, the red area expands and feels warm and tender to the touch.
What does cellulitis look like? Cellulitis looks like a large red patch or possibly several smaller ones that can lead to blisters. Also, the skin will dimple in the affected area, making the skin look like an orange peel.
You may get a fever along with the infection. If your symptoms are spreading rapidly, go see a doctor immediately, whether you have an accompanying fever or not. Your lymph nodes may also be swollen, as your body fights the infection.
Cellulitis of the legs and arms can lead to long-term swelling of these extremities. It can spread to the layers below the skin (the fascial lining) leading to skin death (necrotizing fasciitis) — which is a major emergency. That’s why it’s important to diagnose and treat it as early as possible.
What causes cellulitis?
How do you get cellulitis? Cellulitis is caused by a bacterial infection spread through open skin.
Is cellulitis contagious? It’s not contagious by normal skin-to-skin contact; it has to get in through a cut or a break in the skin. Once there, it starts to spread quickly. If you have an injury, no matter how slight, it can be an entry point for cellulitis.
Other conditions that cause skin breaks, like chickenpox or shingles, may also lead to cellulitis because not only do you have open skin, but also you have a lowered resistance to infection. You should also keep an eye out if you have eczema or athlete’s foot or any other type of breakout; cellulitis can make a bad situation much worse.
Carrying extra weight can also contribute to cellulitis forming, since it seeks out the cellulite (fat) cells to infect. Lower weight does not protect you from cellulitis, but heavier people have more cellulite and lower circulation.
Animal bites can also cause cellulitis if they puncture the skin. Likewise, since cellulitis affects the under layers of skin where ink would be applied, a tattoo needle or skin piercing can be an introduction point for the disease.
How do you prevent cellulitis?
If you have diabetes, poor circulation, or similar conditions, you should keep an eye out for the warning signs and also use some preventative measures to lessen the likelihood of getting cellulitis.
If you have a skin wound, keep it clean with soap and water and cover it with a protective cream like a petroleum jelly (Vaseline). Keep the wound covered with a bandage. Change it daily so you can watch for any suspicious reddening and swelling around the skin break.
If you do not currently have an open wound, protect yourself in other ways. Use moisturizer to keep your skin from drying out and cracking, and check your legs and feet every day for inflammation.
But, although cellulitis on legs is common, cellulitis doesn’t only happen on the legs. So, protect your hands from cuts as well by keeping your nails neatly trimmed and avoiding hangnails. Wear good protective shoes, and if performing yard work that might scratch your hands, wear gloves.
How to treat cellulitis?
There are no home remedies for cellulitis, as it’s a serious condition. Since cellulitis is an infection, you should see a doctor, who may prescribe antibiotics to treat it. You will need to rest and keep the infected area elevated. Ibuprofen (such as Advil), a pain medication that also reduces inflammation, may also help, but it is not a cellulitis home treatment.
If the cellulitis is widespread you may be given meds with an IV rather than with pills. It can take several days of treatment to get the situation under control. If you are put on medication, don’t stop taking it before the doctor tells you to.
Now that you know the warning signs of cellulitis and how to prevent it, you have your best defense against the disease.