|Also Listed As:
Cellulitis is an inflammation of the skin and the connective tissue beneath
the skin, caused by a bacterial infection. Cellulitis most often affects the
legs, but it may also affect the arms, face, and scalp. Generally, cellulitis is
cured with antibiotics; however, the condition sometimes leads to serious
|Signs and Symptoms|
Cellulitis is accompanied by the following signs and
- Pain and tenderness
- Edema (swelling caused by fluid in the tissues)
- Erythema (abnormal redness of the skin)
- Skin that is warm to the touch
|What Causes It?|
Cellulitis is caused by a bacterial infection, most often by group A
streptococci and Staphylococcus aureus. Other types of bacteria may cause
cellulitis in children, people in specific occupations (such as fish and meat
handlers), and those exposed to water in aquariums and swimming pools. In 50 to
60% of cases, the patient has had some kind of skin injury (for example, cuts,
insect bites, trauma, burns, surgical incisions, intravenous catheters,
dermatitis). Upper respiratory infections precede one third of erysipelas cases.
Erysipelas is an acute, superficial type of cellulitis involving the lymph
system. It is seen in infants, young children, and the elderly, and is generally
caused by streptococcal infection.
|Who's Most At Risk?|
People with the following conditions or characteristics are at risk for
- General weight loss and weakness, especially from chronic illness
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Contaminated wounds
- A weakened immune system
- A general infection
- Sinusitis, otitis media, or epiglottitis, especially in
- Lymphedema (accumulation of lymph fluid in the body's tissues) from
surgery, radiation therapy, or cancer that has spread to lymph nodes
- Animal bites
- Vein surgery
|What to Expect at Your Provider's Office|
If you experience symptoms associated with cellulitis, you should see your
healthcare provider as soon as possible. He or she will do a thorough physical
examination to determine what is causing the condition and which antibiotic
therapy to prescribe. Lab tests and imaging may also be
Standard treatment includes antibiotics in combination with complete bed
rest. It is important to elevate the affected arms or legs, to keep still, and
to apply cool, wet, sterile bandages to relieve discomfort.
Your provider will prescribe the appropriate antibiotics for your infection
as well as pain relievers if needed.
|Surgical and Other Procedures|
Surgery to drain any underlying abscess (infected tissue) may be necessary if
antibiotics are not effective.
|Complementary and Alternative Therapies|
Because cellulitis can progress rapidly, it is important to start antibiotics
as soon as possible. This may prevent complications from the skin and soft
tissue infection. Most CAM therapies have not yet been studied for use in the
case of cellulitis specifically. Several therapies, though, may reduce the risk
of developing cellulitis or ease some of the symptoms when used in conjunction
with conventional care.
Magnet therapy has been successfully used by some patients with chronic,
recurring cellulitis, although there has been no scientific research to date to
adequately test the value of this treatment. There are many theories about how
magnet therapy works to reduce pain and inflammation. They include the idea that
magnets improve circulation to the area by removing wastes and by delivering
nutrients more efficiently. Magnets are also thought to lessen pain by altering
the transmission of pain signals; by realigning the molecules in cell membranes,
which may improve cell function; and by changing levels of enzymes and other
chemicals in the body. Research is needed to explore these theories and the
approach of magnet therapy for cellulitis and other conditions more
Researchers have not studied the ways specific nutrients may affect
cellulitis. However, zinc and vitamins A, C, and E are used to support the
immune system. Vitamins A and E are also thought to benefit the skin. Flavonoids
(compounds in such fruits as citrus, blueberries, grapes; in vegetables,
including onions; and in tea and red wine) appear to help reduce lymphedema and
to reduce the risk of cellulitis. Bromelain (250 to 500 mg three times a day)
may be used to reduce inflammation and edema (swelling from fluid buildup); it
works well when used with the flavonoid quercetin.
While there are no scientific studies showing that herbs have a direct effect
on cellulitis, the following herbs that support the immune system may be
- Echinacea (Echinacea spp.) is widely used in clinics to boost
the immune system in order to prevent infection. In addition, the World Health
Organization (WHO) supports the use of Echinacea purpurea externally for
treatment of inflammatory skin conditions.
- Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is approved in Great Britain for
skin infections and inflammation; it is applied topically.
- Comfrey root (Symphytum officinale) is an anti-inflammatory.
Some clinicians suggest a paste can be made from comfrey root and placed on the
affected area twice a day to speed healing. Goldenseal root (Hydrastis
canadensis), which has both anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties,
and slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), an antiseptic, may be added to a
comfrey paste to increase its beneficial effects.
- Calendula flower (Calendula officinalis) is approved in Germany
for topical application to leg ulcers (open wounds of the leg that can readily
- Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum), which contains
flavonoids, is approved in Germany for external use on skin inflammation and
French and Belgian homeopaths have been treating cellulitis with homeopathic
remedies since the 1960s. Although very few studies have examined the
effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths would
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. A constitutional type is defined as a
person's physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath
assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment
for each individual.
- Apis Mellifica -- for swelling with a puffy appearance that
worsens with heat and pressure, especially in the afternoon and is better with
cold applications, open air, movement, and sitting upright
- Cantharis -- for restless and anxious individuals; may be used
for children; only available under the direction of a licensed
- Lachesis -- for symptoms that tend to be worse on the left side
of the body and during and immediately after sleep
- Mercurius -- for individuals who are bothered by both heat and
cold, and are often trembling and impulsive
- Rhus toxicodendron -- for individuals who are restless and
anxious with itching that tends to worsen at night but is relieved by warm
compresses or pressure
- Sulphur -- for hot, burning skin with itching that worsens at
night and with washing
Seek immediate medical attention if fever and swelling do not subside after
Acupuncture and other Traditional Chinese Medicine practices may help address
the underlying cause of cellulitis and may enhance the immune system. However,
no scientific studies have investigated their uses specifically for cellulitis.
Massage should not be used if you have an active infection. However, massage
that promotes lymph drainage, when used in conjunction with compression and
exercise, may help prevent cellulitis.
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 immune system disorders. Possible complications include abscesses,
gangrene (tissue destruction), and thrombophlebitis (inflammation of superficial
veins). Some people are prone to recurrence of cellulitis, often in the same
area, leading to permanent skin changes. Gangrene may result in loss of a limb.
Your healthcare provider should see you periodically to make sure you have no
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|Review Date: October 2000|
|Reviewed By: Participants in the review process include: Jacqueline A. Hart, MD,
Department of Internal Medicine, Newton-Wellesley Hospital, Harvard University
and Senior Medical Editor Integrative Medicine, Boston, MA; Eric Wellons, MD,
Department of Surgery, Union Memorial Hospital, Baltimore, MD; Leonard Wisneski,
MD, FACP, George Washington University, Rockville,
Copyright © 2004 A.D.A.M., Inc
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