Leg cellulitis is a painful skin rash on the lower or upper legs that usually results from a bacterial infection. Strains of staphylococci, streptococci, and other common bacteria can enter the skin through a break, cut, or insect bite. Redness and tenderness tend to develop quickly, and symptoms of fever and chills can come about if infection is not treated right away. Prescription oral antibiotics and topical creams are usually sufficient to clear up cellulitis, but a serious infection may require hospitalization and more aggressive treatment.
Bacteria can invade inner layers of skin tissue on the leg through an open wound, bite, or ulcer. People who have excessively dry and flaky skin may also develop leg cellulitis even if visible wounds are not obvious. A person of any age can develop the condition, but young children, people over the age of 60, and individuals with disorders that compromise their immune systems are at the highest risk of infection. Other chronic conditions that increase the likelihood of leg ulcers, including diabetes, are often responsible for recurring cellulitis.
Within a few hours or days of infection, the skin around a wound tends to become red, tender, and warm. Mild swelling is common as inflammation worsens, and the rash may or may not be itchy. Over time, an untreated rash usually begins to spread across a wide area of the leg and possibly afflict the buttocks, groin area, and abdomen. Fever and other flu-like symptoms such as joint aches and chills are common as the infection spreads. It is important to visit a doctor or emergency room when symptoms become serious to prevent infection from spreading to the heart, brain, and other vital organs.
Doctors can usually diagnose cellulitis by carefully inspecting a rash and asking about symptoms. In order to determine the bacteria responsible for infection, a blood or tissue sample may be collected for lab tests. The doctor may also check the lymph nodes for swelling and screen for lung and throat infections.
Children and adults who have relatively mild symptoms are usually prescribed antibiotics. A doctor typically provides a topical analgesic as well to ease pain and swelling. By taking medications as directed, resting, and staying hydrated, most people start feeling better within about two weeks.
A patient who has severe symptoms related to leg cellulitis may be admitted into the hospital. Intravenous antibiotics, fluids, and fever-reducing medications are given to manage symptoms. Doctors carefully monitor patients' conditions and conduct tests to see if underlying autoimmune disorders are present. With prompt treatment, even serious cases of cellulitis can usually be cured.