Do you know what a cellulitis skin infection is? Dr Tarryn Jacobs explains

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Patient talking to a medical doctor about what she is feeling.
Patient talking to a medical doctor about what she is feeling.

Cellulitis is more common that we think. A study published by the National Institute of Health showed that about 21.1 million people in 2015 had cellulitis, with about 16 900 deaths worldwide.  

It is also known as a bacterial skin infection.

Parent24 chatted to Dr Tarryn Jacobs, a Pretoria based specialist dermatologist at NoviSkin, to find out more about this chronic inflammatory skin condition.   

She is actively involved in medical education and training and her areas of special interest include these skin conditions, acne and atopic dermatitis.

What is cellulitis?

In our conversation with her, she told us that cellulitis is a common infection of the skin. It is caused by bacteria which infects the deep layers of skin and tissues beneath the skin.

She says that cellulitis manifests as areas of redness, swelling, warmth and tenderness.

She adds, "this infection can show up anywhere on the skin. Adults often get it on the lower legs, while in children it is more common on the face or neck."

Read: 'Not just a skin disorder': Five common myths about psoriasis everyone needs to know

What are the causes of cellulitis?

Dr Jacobs tells us that anyone can get this infection, but there are some conditions in which cellulitis is more likely to happen, such as:

1. When a patient has diabetes, particularly if their glucose is poorly controlled

2. If a patient is overweight or suffers from obesity

3. When a patient is on immunosuppressive medication

4. If a patient has a long term liver or kidney disease

5. If a patient is middle-aged or older

How does it occur?

Cellulitis happens when a bacteria enters through a break in the skin.

She says that this break can be small, such as a scratch, insect bite or injection, or from another skin disease like athlete’s foot, eczema or a leg ulcer.

"The most common bacteria causing cellulitis are staphylococcus aureus and streptococcus species," explained Dr Jacobs.

What are the symptoms of cellulitis?

The first sign of the illness is often feeling unwell, with fever and chills, she says. This is due to bacteria in the bloodstream, bacteraemia.

Dr Jacobs explains that these symptoms may start a few hours or a day before the skin changes become visible.

Thereafter, a localized area of warm, red and swollen skin develops. The skin is often tender or painful, she says. Swelling and blisters may then develop, which can be filled with clear fluid or blood, she adds.

Is cellulitis serious?

According to Dr Jacobs, the severity of cellulitis can range from mild to severe.

It may lead to abscesses, infection of deeper structures such as muscle or born or even septicaemia (blood poisoning) sometimes.

How is cellulitis treated?

Dr Jacobs says that when cellulitis is treated before complications occur then most people recover fully, so it is important to see your doctor as early as possible.

After diagnosis, an oral antibiotic (taken by mouth) is given, for a minimum of 5 to 10 days.

She adds that for a more severe cellulitis infection, antibiotic infusions from the hospital may be required from the patient.

Dr Jacobs emphasizes that having analgesia to reduce the pain and doing proper wound care is important for the patients.

Also read: CEO of SA's first telehealth service separates homecare fact from fiction 

How to decrease your chances of getting cellulitis?

To decrease your chances of getting cellulitis, Dr Jacobs advises that one must make sure that they reduce their chances of getting any breaks in the skin.

Additionally:

2. Keeping your skin clean is important, to wash away bacteria which may cause cellulitis.

3. Make sure that your skin is well moisturised, this may aid in preventing cracks in your skin which can let bacteria in.

4. Treating skin conditions such as fungal infections or eczema of the hands and feet early is also important. 

5. If you injure your skin, then treat the wounds right away by washing it and applying an antibiotic.

Common myths 

A Clinical Review study has revealed a number of myths where this infection is concerned. These are untrue, but the most common myths include:

1. Skin that is red and swollen is definitely cellulitis

2. Skin and soft tissue infections do not require antibiotic treatment

3. If the redness extends beyond the drawn wound margin in a patient with cellulitis, the patient is getting worse

4. All patients with tick bites and surrounding redness have cellulitis

If you suspect you or your child have cellulitis or a bacterial skin infection contact your doctor or clinic immediately. 

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