Chances are, you’ve had cellulitis or know someone who has. The infection is incredibly common, caused by bacteria entering the skin thanks to a simple cut, a case of athlete’s foot or a skin condition like eczema. It usually shows up on the feet and lower legs, but it can affect other parts of the body. While it’s easily treated if caught early, it always pays to be proactive. We asked the experts for the lowdown on cellulitis and how to combat it so you can keep your feet healthy.
What is cellulitis?
Cellulitis is a skin infection caused by a break in the skin such as a scratch or a cut, which then allows bacteria to enter. The infection causes the skin to swell, and turn red, tender and warm to the touch. Cellulitis can be minor or severe depending on the breed of bacteria that’s involved (usually staphylococcus or streptococcus), but almost everyone experiences that kind of inflammation.
Scratches and scrapes aside, there are other risk factors that increase the chances of developing cellulitis. Dr. John Diaz, a plastic surgeon, says those with weakened immune systems such as the elderly are more susceptible, while diseases like diabetes make it harder for the skin to fight off infection. Diaz explains that some medications, including steroids, also put people at greater risk. Specialist dermatologist Dr. Kate DeAmbrosis adds that surgery, trauma, varicose veins and dermatologic disorders like eczema “disrupt skin’s integrity” and offer “easier access to the bacterial organisms that cause cellulitis.”
“Someone with athlete’s foot may already have bacterial contamination of the toes. A simple scratch or small cut on the foot will then allow easy passage of bacteria into the skin surface,” he tells SheKnows.
What’s more — and this is a fun fact — DeAmbrosis says the webbing on our feet is a “reservoir for bacteria.”
While cellulitis isn’t contagious, it can quickly spread to the lymph nodes, bloodstream or other parts of the body if left untreated.
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis
At first, cellulitis appears as a red, swollen rash and the affected skin feels tender, “stretched” or even painful. As the infection worsens, those areas of inflamed skin grow larger, and the rash can spread very quickly within 24 hours. According to Diaz, cellulitis caused by more aggressive forms of bacteria can lead to blisters and dimpling of the skin along with fever and chills.
The other major symptoms associated with cellulitis are:
- Elevated heart rate
- Low blood pressure
- Lightheadedness or dizziness
- Muscle aches
However, DeAmbrosis points out that some patients don’t have any of those associated symptoms early on.
The golden rule? If you break out into a rash, get it checked out sooner rather than later.
How to treat foot cellulitis
Luckily, cellulitis can be easily treated — but it’s important to take action before the infection spreads. In most cases, oral antibiotics clear the infection fully within 10 to 14 days. The symptoms usually start to subside after three or four days.
If the pain is intense, your doctor may also prescribe a pain reliever. It also helps to keep your feet elevated to reduce swelling.
Protect your feet to prevent cellulitis
As always, prevention is the best cure, and it all comes down to taking care of your skin. DeAmbrosis suggests being proactive about any skin conditions. “Wear compression stockings to prevent lower leg swelling, manage varicose veins early and control inflammatory skin diseases like eczema.”
Diaz agrees, saying it’s key to keep a close eye on any skin changes, and if you do develop a cut on the skin, make sure to wash it immediately with soap and water. After that, he says that covering any wounds with antibiotic creams and a dressing will also prevent the overgrowth of bacteria that could lead to cellulitis.