Find a Provider


What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and underlying tissue caused by streptococcal, staphylococcal, or other bacteria. This infection is serious and should receive immediate medical attention. Without treatment the infection can damage skin tissues and spread quickly through the bloodstream to the entire body. It could become life threatening.

Cellulitis is usually worse for if you have a lowered resistance to infection because of an illness or disorder such as HIV/AIDS, diabetes, or a weak immune system.

How does it occur?

Cellulitis can be caused by different types of bacteria. Bacteria enter the body through a cut or sore. Poisons made by the bacteria destroy skin cells. The infection spreads over the area within a day or two and can affect tissues below the skin.

A particularly dangerous type of cellulitis can affect the eyes. It is called orbital cellulitis and can happen when bacteria get into tissues around the eye socket. Infected tissue swells around the eye, causing it to bulge out. This can trap and damage nerves. The infection can spread into the bloodstream or into the brain and cause life-threatening problems.

What are the symptoms?

Cellulitis most often occurs on the face, arms, or legs, but it can happen anywhere. Symptoms of cellulitis may include:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • extreme tenderness or pain
  • skin that feels hot to the touch
  • red streaks from the wound or sore
  • pus-filled sores (abscesses)
  • swollen and tender lymph glands
  • fever.

The symptoms of orbital cellulitis include:

  • problems with your vision
  • pain in and around the eye
  • discharge from the eye
  • fever
  • swelling and redness of the eyelids and tissue around the eye
  • an eye that looks like it bulges forward compared to the other eye.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine you. You may have tests of your blood and discharge from sores.

How is it treated?

The infection is treated with an antibiotic. If you are taking an antibiotic by mouth, your provider will probably want to see you or talk to you 1 or 2 days after your first visit to make sure the antibiotic is working. If the infection does not get better with oral antibiotics, you may need to be treated at the hospital with intravenous (IV) antibiotics.

If you have a sinus infection that is causing orbital cellulitis, you may need surgery to drain the infection from your eye socket and sinuses.

How long will the effects of cellulitis last?

If treated right away with antibiotics, the infection usually clears up within 1 or 2 weeks.

Cellulitis that is not properly treated may lead to:

  • infection in the blood
  • gangrene (areas of body tissue destroyed) and possibly loss of a body part (amputation)
  • meningitis if the infection spreads to the brain
  • death.

Orbital cellulitis can cause a loss of vision.

How can I take care of myself?

  • If you were prescribed an antibiotic, take all of it exactly as prescribed.
  • Ask your healthcare provider how to care for the infected area. For example, ask if you should put hot packs or dressings on the area.
  • Sometimes the infection may get worse even though you are taking an antibiotic. Ask your provider what symptoms you should watch for and when you should check back with your provider.
  • Call your provider right away if:
    • Your symptoms are getting worse.
    • You have new symptoms.
  • Call your provider during office hours if:
    • Your symptoms are not starting to get better in 2 to 3 days.

How can I help prevent cellulitis?

  • Clean cuts, scrapes, and other skin injuries well with soap and water.
  • Keep wounds and sores clean and covered with a bandage. Change the bandage daily, or sooner if it gets dirty or wet.
  • See your healthcare provider for treatment as soon as possible if a wound or sore shows signs of infection.
  • If you have diabetes, follow your instructions for good skin care and keep your blood sugar under good control.

Disclaimer: This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information provided is intended to be informative and educational and is not a replacement for professional medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.

HIA File derm4854.htm Release 13/2010

© 2010 RelayHealth and/or its All rights reserved.