When to Worry About Cellulitis

By Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 8, 2022

If you’re reading this, chances are you either have or think you may have cellulitis

If that’s correct, there’s also a high probability that you might be worried about what you’re up against—concerned about what cellulitis even is, how you got it, if it’s going to get worse, and what it might mean for you and your health.

That’s normal. And luckily, we’re here to help.

In this article, we’ll go in-depth on the ins and outs of cellulitis and explain when it is a cause for concern.

Most cases of cellulitis will go away on their own with proper treatment, but others can be more serious and demand immediate medical attention.

Here, we help you differentiate between the two, in the hopes of helping to put your mind at ease.

Read on for more on cellulitis and when you need to worry

What Is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection that affects the deeper layers of the skin, causing pain, redness, and swelling at the site of infection.

Both adults and children can get cellulitis anywhere on the body.

A number of different bacteria can cause cellulitis, but the most common types are Staphylococcus and Streptococcus (typically group A Streptococcus). 

Cellulitis occurs when bacteria enter the body through openings in the skin.

These can be large, obvious openings (such as due to injury, surgery, or burns) or smaller skin cracks (such as dry skin, scratches, or eczema). 

When the immune system does not work properly, the bacteria can infect the deep layers of the skin, causing cellulitis, which can then spread further throughout the body if not properly treated.

This can lead to serious complications that can be dangerous. More on that below.

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Complications 

Most cases of cellulitis will heal without dangerous complications arising.

However, it is possible for serious complications to occur, especially when cellulitis is not treated properly or promptly, as the infection can spread rapidly throughout the body.

Some rare, but potential, complications include:

  • Osteomyelitis (infection of the bones)
  • Bacteremia (infection of the blood)
  • Endocarditis (infection of the lining of the heart chambers and/or the lining of the heart valves)
  • Septic Joint (infection of the joints)
  • Necrotizing fasciitis (a very serious infection that spreads quickly and can lead to death if not treated promptly)

Symptoms That Shouldn’t Be Ignored

To start, it should be made clear that you should see a medical provider if you think you may have cellulitis.

The complications that can arise from waiting too long are serious enough to necessitate this.

Some standard symptoms of cellulitis include:

  • A red, swollen, and/or painful patch of skin that can be tender, hard, and warm to the touch
  • The affected skin can appear glossy, pitted, or dimpled
  • Red streaks coming from the area of infection
  • Blisters or pus-filled bumps on the affected area (in more severe cases)
  • Headache
  • Weakness

There are also some symptoms that should not be ignored, as they can indicate a severe infection.

This is an emergency, and you should seek medical treatment immediately.

These symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Fever
  • Red area (affected area) that is very large or growing rapidly
  • Skin turning black
  • Numbness or tingling of the affected area
  • The affected area spreads behind the ears, around the eyes, or to the face

Cellulitis is also considered an emergency if you have a weakened immune system, as it can spread even more quickly.

If your immune system is compromised for any reason (diabetes, medications, etc.), seek medical treatment immediately. 

Treatment

There are two ways to treat cellulitis—antibiotics, and self-care—and they must be used in conjunction to ensure that your cellulitis goes away and stays away.  

Antibiotics

Antibiotics, which your healthcare provider will prescribe, are crucial to treating cellulitis and are typically taken orally.

The type of antibiotic your doctor prescribes will depend on the type of bacteria causing your cellulitis—and you may be prescribed more than one.

Common antibiotics prescribed include penicillin, cephalosporins, doxycycline, or clindamycin.

The length of time for which you must take the prescription may also vary by person and case, though seven to 14 days is normal.

It is critical that you complete the entire course of the prescription, even if it looks or feels like your cellulitis has gone away, to ensure that the infection is completely gone and will not return. 

In severe cases, or when dealing with cellulitis of the face, a medical provider may decide that it’s necessary that antibiotics be administered intravenously (i.e., through an IV). In this case, a hospital stay may be needed.

Self-care

Though antibiotics are the gold standard for treating cellulitis, they should be accompanied by proper at-home care.

One of the most important pieces of this care is to elevate the affected area to reduce swelling and begin the healing process. 

Other components include proper wound care (ensuring that you keep the affected area clean and covered with a bandage that is changed frequently), allowing yourself to rest, and treating other conditions that may have contributed to the cellulitis (like eczema or athlete’s foot). 

Cellulitis will not go away on its own, nor with self-care alone.

It’s vital that you see a medical provider if you believe you may have cellulitis in order to be prescribed antibiotics and avoid complications.  

Prevention

Unfortunately, some people have risk factors that make them more prone to developing cellulitis.

These risk factors include having certain diseases (like AIDS, diabetes, or kidney diseases), taking certain medications (like corticosteroids), having had cellulitis in the past, a recent surgery, and more.

People who fall under one of these groups must be precautious in order to avoid acquiring cellulitis.

Here are some things people can do to prevent it:

  • Treating other medical conditions that may lead to cellulitis (like lymphedema, diabetes, obesity, eczema, leg ulcers, and peripheral artery disease) promptly
  • Treating infections anywhere on the body (like athlete’s foot or impetigo) promptly, as these can lead to cellulitis
  • Avoiding injury to the skin
  • Keeping the skin moisturized to avoid cracking 
  • Keeping the skin clean to avoid bacteria from entering 
  • Treating wounds promptly to avoid infection
  • Quitting smoking and drinking alcohol, as studies have found that heavy smoking and drinking alcohol can increase your risk of getting cellulitis again
Concerned about cellulitis? Chat with a medical provider through K Health.
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When to See a Medical Provider

The CDC recommends making an appointment with a medical provider as soon as you notice symptoms of cellulitis, or think you may have it.

As previously mentioned, the faster you begin treating cellulitis, the better, as it can spread rapidly throughout the body, leading to complications that can turn dangerous quickly. 

Once you see a medical provider, they will typically be able to diagnose you right away after doing a physical examination of the affected area and asking you a series of health-related questions.

If they need more information to determine whether you have cellulitis or some other skin condition, they may refer you to a specialist, or send you to do a blood culture or related lab test, for accuracy purposes. 

As previously mentioned, there are also a few cases where cellulitis is an emergency, and you should seek immediate medical care.

For example, if you experience the affected area going numb or tingly, turning black, or expanding quickly, or if you have an accompanying fever, the affected area is in your face, around your eyes, or behind your ears have a weakened immune system. 

How K Health Can Help

Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?

Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a healthcare provider in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

When is cellulitis an emergency?
Cellulitis is considered an emergency when the infection begins to spread and become severe. Severe symptoms that indicate an emergency—and necessitate immediate medical care—include fever, chills, the affected area turning black, and numbness or tingling of the affected area. If you are experiencing these symptoms, the infection may be spreading to other parts of the body, which can lead to dangerous complications.
When does cellulitis need hospitalization?
Cellulitis is a common cause of hospitalization, but it is not necessary in every case. You may need to go to the hospital if you have severe symptoms, or if you have a compromised immune system, both of which indicate an emergency. Your medical provider will typically make the decision of whether or not you require hospitalization or if outpatient treatment is a better option for you. If your doctor decides your antibiotics need to be given intravenously, you will typically need to stay in the hospital.
How do you know if cellulitis is getting worse?
If your cellulitis is getting worse, you’ll know because your symptoms will also worsen. That means you may experience increased pain, swelling, redness, warmth, or red streaks spreading from the affected area. You may also experience symptoms you had not experienced prior, like skin blistering, fever, chills, numbness or tingling of the affected area, or the affected area turning black.
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Nena Luster DNP, MBA, FNP-BC

Nena Luster is a board certified Family Nurse Practitioner with over 14 years of experience including emergency medicine, urgent care, and family practice.