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You or a member of your family may have had an episode of cellulitis, an inflammation of the cells. It is a common infection, and almost everyone has had an episode at one time or another.

Your skin protects you from most infections. When there is a break in the skin, bacteria can get under it and cause an infection. These breaks in the skin can occur from insect bites (animal or human, too), burns, scrapes, other injuries, or pressure ulcers. Additional causes of cellulitis are vascular disease, diabetes, skin ulcers, surgery, or the use of immunosuppressive drugs or steroids.

The legs and feet are particularly vulnerable to cellulitis because fluid is easily retained in limbs that hang lower than the heart, and fluid easily collects in them. Even though the legs and feet are more susceptible, any part of the body can have cellulitis.


The symptom of cellulitis is hot, red, swollen and painful skin over the infected area. The appearance of cellulitis is generally easy to see because of the swelling and change in color. The area is warm to the touch. Often the infection has a quick onset.

Sometimes people have swollen lymph nodes because of the body's reaction to the infection. An individual might have a fever, chills, or other symptoms of infection. Sometimes people experience muscle aches and joint pain and feel ill. The infection can spread from the immediate area of the opening to a general infection in the entire body.


The most common bacterium that causes cellulitis is from the streptococcus organism. This bacterium can spread quickly because it produces an enzyme that slows the body's ability to confine the infection. Another bacterium that frequently causes cellulitis is the staphylococcus bacterium. Other organisms can cause celluiitis but are not as common as streptococcus and staphylococcus.

What to Do

If you think you have an infection or cellulitis, call your healthcare provider. It is important to see your physician because this local infection might spread into a generalized infection throughout your body.

Often treatment can be done on an outpatient basis with oral antibiotics. However, treatment might include hospitalization if the infection is severe enough. Even if the infection is not severe, hospitalization might be in order because of SCI/D or other medical conditions. Medication might be given to control the pain.

If you take antibiotics and follow the other recommendations of your physician, the infection could be gone in 7-10 days. It is important to take all the antibiotics as they are ordered. The infection might take longer to clear up or be more severe in some individuals, so keep in touch with your physician and follow instructions.

If the infection is in an extremity, it is a good idea to elevate the affected arm or leg. Elevation helps minimize swelling. Warm, moist compresses aid the body in fighting the infection by increasing blood supply to the tissues.

Sometimes people have complications from this infection. These can include gangrene (death of tissue), generalized infection, meningitis, or lymphatic infection. If you have an increase in symptoms or new symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. Additional or new symptoms include fever, drowsiness, and lethargy; blistering over the swollen area or red streaks are signs the infection is increasing throughout the body.

Individuals who are spinal-cord injured or have spinal-cord diseases should pay specia.1 attention to good skin care. Their loss of sensation, decreased circulation, changes in skin turgor, and potential for pressure ulcers results in a tremendous risk for cellulitis. Care providers should carefully inspect skin when providing care. Any questionable skin changes should be reported to the patient's physician.

It is clearly important for you to see your physician if you have any indication of cellulitis. Delaying a visit to the physician could seriously risk your health. Your physician will check the appearance and symptoms and generally take a sample of blood, pus, or tissue to see what bacterium is causing the infection. Sometimes a blood clot can look like cellulitis, so it is very important to check with your physician.

Rapid treatment is necessary to prevent the spread of the infection. You might need oral or IV antibiotics. The infected area needs close observation and treatment.

Contact: PVA Medical Services, (800) 424-8200 / (202) 872-1300.

Information for this article was obtained from:

Medline Plus (National Library of Medicine),

The Merck Manual--Second Home Edition,

Emedicine, Instant Access to the Minds of Medicine,
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Title Annotation:living well
Author:Adair, Ann
Publication:PN - Paraplegia News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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