Cellulitis | Pokenga kiri

(you say, sell-you-lie-tis)

Key points about cellulitis

  • Cellulitis (pokenga kiri) is an infection that affects the deeper layers of the skin.
  • Areas of skin affected by cellulitis become red, painful, hot and swollen.
  • See your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of cellulitis.
  • Early treatment with antibiotics can stop the infection becoming more serious.
  • Seek medical help straight away if the problem area is near your eye, if you have flu-like symptoms, if your immune system is weakened or if you are an older person or a child. 
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Cellulitis generally only affects one side of the body. The area of skin affected by cellulitis becomes:

  • red
  • painful or tender to touch
  • hot
  • swollen.

It most often affects the lower legs but can occur on any part of your body including your face. Blisters may form and the affected area may grow larger. This can happen quite quickly, over hours to a few days.

You may also feel unwell and feverish with a high temperature and shivers. This may start a few hours or a day before the skin changes become visible.

The image below shows cellulitis on a leg. The black marking is where the area of redness has been outlined to check if it changes size over time. You can read about this below.

Image credit: DermNet NZ

See your healthcare provider (preferably today) if you have the symptoms of cellulitis

Ask for an urgent appointment (straight away) if: 

  • your face or the area around your eye is affected
  • the redness and swelling is spreading rapidly and/or is extremely painful
  • you were bitten by an animal or human 
  • you develop a fever or flu-like symptoms
  • you have diabetes or a weakened immune system, eg, because of chemotherapy 
  • a young child or older person may have cellulitis.

Sometimes, bacteria from cellulitis can spread into your blood stream. This is called septicaemia, and can trigger sepsis, which is a medical emergency. Early treatment with antibiotics can stop the infection becoming more serious.

Cellulitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria are usually present on your skin without causing infection, but if they get through your skin (eg, through cuts, bites or dry, cracked skin), they can multiply and cause cellulitis. Sometimes the break in the skin is too small to notice.

A common cause of cellulitis is scratching your skin with dirty fingernails that carry bacteria. You’re more likely to get cellulitis if you have a skin condition that makes you itchy and more likely to scratch.

Once the bacteria are in the skin, they cause redness and swelling that can spread rapidly.

You can't catch cellulitis from another person as it affects the deeper layers of the skin.

Anybody can get cellulitis. Some of the common things that make you more at risk of getting cellulitis are:

  • having had cellulitis before
  • having poor blood circulation in your arms, legs, hands or feet
  • being a smoker
  • difficulty moving around
  • being overweight
  • having a weakened immune system (eg, caused by uncontrolled diabetes or chemotherapy)
  • having a skin condition (eg, eczema, psoriasis, scabies or acne)
  • having athlete's foot (fungal infection of the skin between the toe webs)
  • having chronic swelling (eg, from heart failure)
  • injecting drugs
  • having a wound from surgery
  • having a dental infection
  • having had an insect or animal bite.

The treatment for cellulitis is antibiotics.

  • For mild cellulitis affecting a small area of skin, you'll be prescribed antibiotic pills.
  • If it's more severe you may need intravenous (IV) antibiotics (into a vein). Your healthcare provider may arrange for you to have IV antibiotics without needing to go to hospital. As the infection improves, you may be able to change from intravenous to oral antibiotics, which can be taken at home for a further week to 10 days. Most people respond to antibiotics in 2 to 3 days and begin to show improvement.
  • You may also be seen by a skin specialist (dermatologist), or by an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) if your cellulitis is near your eye.

Antibiotics

To help your body fight the infection, you will need antibiotics. Make sure you understand how to take the antibiotics – how many times per day and what dose. Take the antibiotics every day until they're finished. It's important to do this even if the infection seems to have cleared up as there may be infection under the skin that you can’t see.

Note that the redness may continue to spread during the first 2 days of taking antibiotics. You should go back to your healthcare provider if the red area gets much bigger or you have a fever. Cellulitis can spread to other parts of your body or to your blood. You may need blood tests and/or more antibiotics.

Your healthcare provider may mark the edge of the red area with a marker pen. Don't wash this off. This is so they can see if your skin infection is improving.

Most people make a full recovery after 7–10 days. If your symptoms are improving, you can stop taking antibiotics at the end of the prescribed course. If you're not sure, talk to your healthcare provider to see if you need another course of antibiotics.

Pain relief

Cellulitis can be quite painful because it puts pressure on the skin from underneath. You can take pain relief medicines (eg, paracetamol) or an anti-inflammatory (eg, ibuprofen). Your healthcare provider will talk to you about appropriate pain relief and may give you a prescription. It’s also important to rest the affected area. The pain eases once the infection starts getting better.

Wound care

If you have a wound, it needs to be kept clean and covered with a dressing. Your wound should be checked every day. This may be by a nurse or an Accident and Medical centre team. They will change the dressing and check that the wound is healing.

If your healthcare provider decides you don’t need to see them every day, they will tell you how to look after your wound at home. If you have any concerns, ask your healthcare provider what to do.

Note that cellulitis doesn't cause pus. If you have pus coming from the wound you should tell your healthcare provider. There may be an abscess that needs to be drained for the infection to get better.

How can I care for my cellulitis?

As well as taking antibiotics, you can:

  • Get plenty of rest. This helps your body to fight the infection. If you have cellulitis on your leg, limit walking for the first few days.
  • Raise the affected body part on a pillow or chair when you're sitting or lying down. This helps reduce swelling. Continue to do this for the first 48 hours at least.
  • If your arm or hand is involved, use a sling when walking around. This not only helps relieve pain but also helps the healing process.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Contact your healthcare provider again if your cellulitis is getting worse, you are feeling more unwell or if there's no improvement after 2 days on antibiotics.

You can reduce the chances of getting cellulitis again by:

  • keeping your skin clean and well moisturised – dry skin causes cracks which increase your risk of cellulitis
  • cleaning any cuts or wounds
  • preventing cuts and scrapes by wearing protective clothing and footwear
  • keeping your finger nails short and avoiding scratching
  • treating any breaks in your skin (eg, due to athlete’s foot or eczema)
  • wearing gloves if you're working outside.

If you have diabetes or poor circulation you are at increased risk of cellulitis. It's important that you check your feet daily, moisturise your skin, trim your nails carefully and treat any infections on the skin (eg, athlete’s foot) quickly. 

If you've had cellulitis more than once within 6 months, you may be prescribed low-dose antibiotics long-term to stop the infection coming back. 


Cellulitis(external link) Kidshealth, NZ
Cellulitis(external link) NHS Choices, UK
Cellulitis(external link) Mayo Clinic, US

Resources

Cellulitis(external link) Workbase Education Trust and Ministry of Health, NZ
Managing your cellulitus [PDF, 916 KB] Auckland DHB, NZ,
Keeping skin healthy(external link)(external link) Ministry of Health and Workbase, NZ

References

  1. Managing your cellulitus [PDF, 916 KB] Auckland DHB, NZ, 2017
  2. Cellulitis(external link) Auckland Region HealthPathways, NZ, 2023 (requires login)
  3. Cellulitis(external link) Mayo Clinic, US, 2022

Brochures

cellulitis

Cellulitis

Workbase Education Trust and Ministry of Health, NZ, 2013

managing your cellulitus adhb

Managing your cellulitus

Auckland DHB, NZ, 2017

keeping skin healthy

Keeping skin healthy
Ministry of Health and Workbase, NZ

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