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SALT LAKE CITY — While cellulitis is a common bacterial infection, it is a staph infection — and it is deadly. Here are some tips on how to identify the dangerous infection and how to get help.
Cellulitis is an infection of the dermis, or skin. It's most commonly caused by staphylococcus bacteria, which is actually present on a person's skin at all times. This is because there is no way to sterilize skin, and germ-killing products do not completely kill all germs, they simply reduce their numbers for a short time.
Cellulitis usually results from a break in the skin — which could be anything from a pimple to a large gash cut by a dirty object.
Although cellulitis can occur anywhere on your body, the most common location is the lower leg. Bacteria is most likely to enter disrupted areas of skin, such a surgical opening, a cut, a puncture wound, an insect bite , an ulcer, athlete's foot or dermatitis.
Once a person is infected with the bacteria, it can spread rapidly through the body via the lymphatic system. In other words, cellulitis is an emergency.
Ask Nurse Suzy
The infection presents itself as a tender, warm, red and swollen area on your body. You may also experience the following symptoms:
- A sudden abscess or sudden wound drainage which appears to be yellowish and thick
- Red streaks extending away from the wound, in any direction
- Fever, chills, headache, tiredness or generalized ill feeling.
Not everyone who has cellulitis will experience all of the symptoms; but the red, swollen skin is a key sign of the infection.
The following factors will increase your risk of developing cellulitis:
- Chronic edema in extremities
- Peripheral vascular disease
- Steroid use of any kind
- Autoimmune diseases
- Undergoing treatment for chronic diseases or illnesses
- Chronic drug use
If you suspect you may have cellulitis, do not wait to seek medical help. Complications can extend to dead tissue, loss of movement if in a joint area or sepsis and death.
The following are the most common treatments for cellulitis:
- Antibiotics: In most cases, an antibiotic will be prescribed to treat cellulitis. Within three days of starting an antibiotic, let your doctor know whether the infection is responding to treatment.You'll need to take the antibiotic for up to 14 days. If after taking antibiotic, the cellulitis does not clear up, or if you have a high fever, you may need to be hospitalized and receive intravenous antibiotics (through an IV). Sometimes, if the infection has gone to your bone or joint, your antibiotic needs may last anywhere from six to eight weeks. Your doctor will choose an antibiotic based on your circumstances. No matter what type of antibiotic he or she prescribes, it's important that you take the medication as directed and that you finish the entire course of medication, even if you start feeling better.
- Elevation: Make sure to elevate the affected area above the level of your heart.
- Heat: Use a heating pad (not ice) on the affected area to help increase blood flow.
- Pain relief: Take over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen) for fever as well as pain control.
- Rest: Immobilize the affected area until you see sign of healing.
Remember, cellulitis is dangerous. Even if you don't have insurance, it's imperative that you see a doctor and get treatment. If you don't, the problem will just become more expensive, with time spent away from work, medications, hospitalization or even death.
Suzanne Carlile, "Nurse Suzy," has been a nurse since 1982. Her main focus is critical care and nursing education. She holds a master's degree in nursing, is a Certified Emergency Nurse, and a member of NNSDO Intermountain West Chapter.