No, cellulitis doesn't have anything to do with cellulite — that dimpled fat on the back of thighs! Cellulitis (say: sel-yuh-ly-tus) is actually a common infection of the skin that some people get. What starts out as a simple scrape or insect bite can become a case of cellulitis, which needs special attention. Read on to learn what cellulitis is and how to prevent it.
You probably know that your skin has layers — three, to be exact. Well, cellulitis is an infection at the deepest layer, called the subcutaneous (say: sub-kyoo-tay-nee-us) layer. This kind of infection is caused by bacteria, which can get into the body through broken skin of any kind (such as a cut, scratch, animal bite, or a bug bite if you scratch it).
Usually, when you get a scratch, just the top layers near the skin's surface are affected, and the problem clears up on its own. If an infection develops, it may affect just the top layers of skin. But if it goes deeper and becomes cellulitis, all three layers of skin can become red, swollen, and tender.
What Causes It?
Different types of bacteria can cause cellulitis. The most common are group A streptococcus (say: strep-toh-kak-us) and staphylococcus (say: staf-uh-loh-kak-us).
You come into contact with bacteria every day. Some types of bacteria even live on our bodies, but some bacteria are harmful, especially if they get in something like a cut and cause an infection.
How Do I Know If I Have It?
You can get cellulitis on any part of your body, but it often occurs on the face and legs. You should let your parent know any time you have a cut or skin problem so they can check it out.
If the area is painful, red, feels warm, or is swollen, it could be infected and your parent should take you to the doctor. If it turns out to be cellulitis, it may look very red and spread quickly. In some cases, there can be red streaks around it.
Cellulitis is serious and someone who has it needs medical attention. It can cause fever, chills, and swollen glands. Bacteria can get into the bloodstream or even the bones nearby and make someone really sick.
If your doctor suspects you have cellulitis, he or she will examine your skin and ask you questions about recent injuries and what activities you do. The doctor can usually tell from examining the skin if someone has cellulitis. If so, you'll probably have to take an antibiotic (say: an-ty-by-ah-tik), a kind of medicine that kills bacteria.
In more serious cases, blood tests are needed. Someone with a more serious case of cellulitis (with symptoms such as a fever or red streaks on skin) may need to stay in the hospital for a while and get antibiotic medicine through an intravenous (say: in-truh-vee-nus) line (a thin plastic tube that goes into a vein), also called an IV.
How Can I Prevent Cellulitis?
The good news is that you can do a lot to prevent cellulitis. The best way is to be good to your skin! Try to protect it from scrapes, cuts, and bites.
Here are some things you can do:
- Don't scratch at scabs, insect bites, or chickenpox sores. This increases the chances of getting an infection.
- Always wear helmets and elbow, knee, and wrist pads when you ride your bike, play hockey, ride your scooter, or skate.
- Be sure to wear protective gear when playing sports. Always put on a helmet for contact sports, shin guards in soccer, and arm pads in football.
- Slip into sandals to protect your feet in the summertime.
- Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts when you're hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, or playing rough outside. This will help prevent injuries and insect bites.
- Wear insect repellent when you're outdoors, especially in the evening.
Of course, every kid gets a few scrapes and bug bites. When this happens to you, take these steps:
- Wash the cut or bite right away with soap and warm water, and wash it once a day until it scabs over.
- Tell your parent so a grown-up can choose the best way to treat it. That might mean applying antibiotic ointment and a bandage, or for more serious cuts, going to see a doctor.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: April 2007
Originally reviewed by: Joel Klein, MD