Cellulitis

Cellulitis is a skin infection that's treated with antibiotics. It can be serious if it's not treated quickly.

See a GP if your skin is:

You can get cellulitis on any part of your body, but it usually affects:

If you're not sure it's cellulitis

Other conditions can make your skin red, flaky and blistered.

It's unlikely to be cellulitis unless part of your skin is hot, red and swollen.

Ask for an urgent GP appointment if:

  • your face or the area around your eye (periorbital) is affected
  • your symptoms are rapidly getting worse (this could be a sign of something more serious like the rare condition necrotising fasciitis)
  • you have a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy or diabetes
  • a young child or elderly person has possible cellulitis

Early treatment with antibiotics can stop the infection becoming more serious.

Treatment from a GP

For mild cellulitis affecting a small area of skin, your GP will prescribe antibiotic tablets – usually for a week.

Your symptoms might get worse in the first 48 hours of treatment, but should then start to improve.

It's important to keep taking antibiotics until they're finished, even when you feel better.

Most people make a full recovery after 7 to 10 days.

If your cellulitis is severe, your GP might refer you to hospital for treatment.

To stop cellulitis recurring

Some people with recurring cellulitis might be prescribed low-dose long-term antibiotics to stop infections coming back.

Things you can do yourself

As well as taking antibiotics, you can help speed up your recovery by:

  • taking paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain
  • raising the affected body part on a pillow or chair when you're sitting or lying down to reduce swelling
  • regularly moving the joint near the affected body part, such as your wrist or ankle, to stop it getting stiff
  • drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • not wearing compression stockings until you're better

You can reduce the chances of getting cellulitis again by:

  • keeping skin clean and well moisturised
  • cleaning any cuts or wounds, or using antiseptic cream
  • preventing cuts and scrapes by wearing appropriate clothing and footwear
  • wearing gloves if working outside

Cellulitis complications

If not treated quickly, the infection can spread to other parts of the body, such as the blood, muscles and bones.

Call 999 or go to A&E now if you have cellulitis with:

  • a very high temperature, or you feel hot and shivery
  • a fast heartbeat or fast breathing
  • purple patches on the skin
  • feeling dizzy or faint
  • confusion or disorientation
  • cold, clammy, pale skin
  • unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness

These are symptoms of sepsis, which can be very serious and potentially life threatening.

What causes cellulitis

Cellulitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria can infect the deeper layers of your skin if it's broken – for example, because of an insect bite or cut, or if it's cracked and dry.

Sometimes the break in the skin is too small to notice.

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

You're more at risk of cellulitis if you:

  • have poor circulation in your arms, legs, hands or feet – for example, because you're overweight
  • find it difficult to move around
  • have a weakened immune system because of chemotherapy treatment or diabetes
  • have bedsores (pressure ulcers)
  • have lymphoedema, which causes fluid build-up under the skin
  • inject drugs
  • have a wound from surgery
  • have had cellulitis before

People who are more at risk of cellulitis should treat any athlete's foot promptly.

Information:

Social care and support guide

If you:

  • need help with day-to-day living because of illness or disability
  • care for someone regularly because they're ill, elderly or disabled - including family members

Our guide to care and support explains your options and where you can get support.

Page last reviewed: 17/01/2018
Next review due: 17/01/2021

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