What Cellulitis Is—and Why You Should Never Treat It At Home

Never Treat Cellulitis at Home

Stocksy/Design by Cristina Cianci

Sure, it kind of sounds like cellulite, but make no mistake—cellulitis is nothing like the dimpling on your derriere. It's a bacterial infection of the skin that, while very common, can quickly become extremely problematic. Like, the 'land you in the hospital' problematic. And while we're by no means opposed to an occasional home remedy, when it comes to cellulitis, experts are quick to warn that at-home treatment is definitely not the way to go. Ahead, Lucy Chen, a board-certified dermatologist of Riverchase Dermatology In Miami, and Marie Hayag, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of 5th Avenue Aesthetics in New York City, explain what you need to know.

Meet the Expert

  • Lucy Chen is a board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology In Miami.
  • Marie Hayag is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of 5th Avenue Aesthetics in New York City.

What Is Cellulitis?

"Cellulitis is an uncomfortable, and sometimes severely painful, bacterial infection of the skin," explains Chen. It's also widespread, with about a quarter of a million cases per year, she adds. The big difference between it and other infections, such as MRSA and impetigo? While the signs and symptoms of cellulitis will be very clearly visible on the skin's surface, it's an infection that affects the deeper layers of the dermis and the tissue underneath and sometimes can even go as deep as the muscle, notes Hayag. Similarly, unlike many other infections, it's not contagious and can't be spread from person to person.

What Causes Cellulitis?

"Cellulitis is usually caused when bacteria penetrates the skin through an open wound or an area where the skin isn't completely closed," says Chen. "Once inside the skin, the bacteria may spread to the deeper tissues and fat below and cause cellulitis." Two forms of bacteria are most often involved—Staphylococcus and Streptococcus, affectionately know as staph and strep. (Yes, that's the same strep as in strep throat.) It bears mentioning that these two bacteria are commonly found on our skin and in the mucous membranes of the nose and mouth, says Hayag. If there's a break in the skin—often due to injury—it's easy for that bacteria to enter and potentially cause infection. Surgery and long-term skin conditions that compromise the skin barrier, such as eczema and psoriasis, can also be factors that cause cellulitis, she says. In rare cases, cellulitis can be caused by another type of bacteria, Pasteurella, but this occurs from animal licks or bites in people with fragile immune systems, says Chen.

How Does Cellulitis Manifest?

"Cellulitis initially starts with pain and tenderness. It spreads quickly, and you may experience redness, swelling, tenderness, and pain," says Hayag. Chen adds that another tell-tale, immediate sign of skin infection is warmth, as well as an open wound that's leaking yellowish liquid. If cellulitis progresses without treatment, the skin can begin to blister, develop small red dots, or even have indentations, says Chen. And if it remains untreated still, the symptoms can become systemic, including fever, nausea, and vomiting. While rare, cellulitis can enter the bloodstream, leading to sepsis and even potentially death, she adds. It's scary, for sure, but the good news is that you can easily treat it from the get-go (more on how to treat it in a moment.) It's also worth noting that while cellulitis most commonly affects the lower legs, the infection can occur anywhere on your face or body, says Hayag.

How To Treat Cellulitis

First and foremost, do not try to treat cellulitis (or suspected cellulitis, as it were) by yourself. Both derms we spoke with were adamant about this point. "There's no situation in which cellulitis can be treated at home. It won't respond to home remedies, as it's an internal skin infection that requires oral antibiotics. If not treated properly, cellulitis can spread further and lead to more severe symptoms and complications," cautions Chen. Hayag agrees, noting that it's paramount to seek professional medical treatment as quickly as possible, particularly if you're experiencing any flu-like symptoms. If caught and treated early enough, oral antibiotics are typically sufficient treatment. More severe infections may require intravenous antibiotics, and if there's an abscess, it may also need to be drained, says Hayag.

While, again, you absolutely must see a doctor if you think you have cellulitis (have we driven home that point yet?), there are certain things that patients can do at home to help aid the professional treatment process. "If the infection is on a limb, keep the affected limb elevated at a level above the heart to help reduce swelling," suggests Hayag. Both doctors add that it's also essential to keep the infected area clean and dry. But perhaps the most important thing you can do is to finish the complete course of antibiotics you've been prescribed—even if it seems like all of your symptoms are gone. "The infection may not yet be completely treated and can then become more difficult to treat if you have to end up taking a second round of antibiotics," says Hayag.

Bottom line: Cellulitis is common and can be easily treated. That is, so long as you see a doctor ASAP and don't try to take matters into your own hands.

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