Written by: Deen Kurrimbux

Cellulitis is an infection of the deep layer of the skin (the dermis). It is caused by various type of bacteria entering any broken parts of the skin. Its most usual occurrence is in the legs but can occur anywhere.

cellulitis on leg

The breaks in the skin can be caused by various other conditions such as athlete’s foot (a fungal infection), being overweight, insect bites, have an existing skin condition such as eczema or have a poor immune system (as a result from chemotherapy or steroids). Already having athlete’s foot is the most common way of getting cellulitis in the legs. The cellulitis can be treated, but it may recur if the athlete’s foot is not also treated. In some cases the athlete’s foot condition may be overlooked when looking for a cause of itchiness and cellulitis sufferers will undergo further bouts of cellulitis before it is realised that infection is due to breaks in the skin between the toes.

Most commonly, the lower part of the leg is where cellulitis occurs, though it may occur anywhere on the body. The affected areas look inflamed, swollen and feel hot and tender to the touch. In some cases blisters may form. Other symptoms, indeed the first symptom, is fever and having shivers and generally feeling unwell as the body immune system fights off the infection. Cellulitis is considered serious only when it spreads throughout the surface of the skin as the immune system struggles to stave off the infection. In this case treatment is usually advised as soon as cellulitis is diagnosed to avoid further spread.

Further complications of cellulitis if left untreated include septicaemia (blood poisoning), abscesses, facial cellulitis – which can lead to meningitis if untreated and necrotising fasciitis – a rare bacterial infection of the deep layer of skin that causes the affected tissue to die.

A 7-day course of antibiotics will usually clear up cellulitis. If there is no change, a different set of antibiotics will be needed. If the cellulitis fails to dissipate, an intravenous course of antibiotics is used to greater and successful effect. If the cellulitis is localised to the legs then the legs should be elevated up beyond hip level to help reducing the swelling. Typically this is done where the sufferer is lying on a sofa with the heels of the feet resting on the armrest as this helps circulation.

Cellulitis is not always preventable but there are steps that can be taken to reduce risk of infection. Washing cuts and wounds under running water and covering them after with a plaster. Use an emollient cream to moisturise the skin preventing cracks abrasions. Finally, avoid scratching the affected areas.

You are not alone. In April 2014, actor/comedian Stephen Fry was hospitalised and diagnosed as suffering from cellulitis.

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