Both authors of this site have had cases of cellulitis, so we can get particularly intimate with this subject. Let’s get down to it. Cellulitis is a bacterial skin infection. It usually starts innocently enough with a little redness and perhaps some swelling. If left untreated, things can go south quickly.
This is what happened to Sam after a mosquito bite in South Korea. In my case, I got a case of cellulitis from a minuscule cut I got on a rock while swimming at a waterfall in Benin (I’ve written about it over at Healthy Travel Blog).
How do you get cellulitis?
It’s quite simple, really. One of the several strains of bacteria (most often streptococcus or staphylococcus, and in rare cases MRSA) needs to get past the surface of your skin. You don’t need to have a deep puncture wound. As long as the skin is broken and the bacteria are able to enter, you can end up with a cellulitis infection. That said, deep wounds in dirty environments will obviously greatly increase your chances of contracting a skin infection.
While cellulitis can occur anywhere on your skin, it’s worth nothing that there is a place on the body that is infected more often than others: the lower leg. In fact, both I and Sam had lower leg infections when we had our cases of cellulitis.
Cuts, insect bites, even particularly bad cases of athlete’s foot or dermatitis — all of them can lead to cellulitis if the area is not properly cleaned and treated. Naturally, this leads to the following question:
How do you prevent cellulitis?
Avoiding cellulitis is straightforward. If your skin is broken, cut or even irritated, keep the area washed, clean and covered. You can use topical disinfectants, sterile bandages and even an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to prevent infection. Change your bandages at least twice a day (more if you are in a particularly humid environment) and keep a close eye on the area to see if there is any expanding redness or swelling.
Furthermore, it is a good idea to inspect your feet regularly, looking for instances of broken skin or athlete’s foot. Finally, keep your fingernails well trimmed. Yes, there are stories of cellulitis occurring after someone scratched themselves with their own fingernails.
Signs and symptoms of cellulitis
Cellulitis is thankfully quite easy to diagnose. In almost all cases, the skin will become red and swollen. The area will also be warm to the touch. If the infection progresses, the swelling will increase, and when you apply pressure to the area, it will feel like you are touching a sack filled with jelly (it is a very unfortunate sensation).
If cellulitis continues untreated, the red and swollen area will get bigger and you will likely get a fever as well. This is a sign that your case needs to be treated urgently. The more time the infection has to settle in, the longer it will take to treat it.
If the infection gets into the lymph nodes or blood stream, it is an emergency situation that needs to be dealt with immediately. This is why early treatment is critical.
The good news is that cellulitis is easily treatable in most cases, especially if it is caught early. You will most likely be prescribed an oral antibiotic that you will need to take for one to two weeks.
In cases of severe cellulitis, you may need to go on intravenous antibiotics for several days. I had to do this in Ghana with the skin infection on my leg. Also, because I am allergic to penicillin, I was required to take a cocktail of different antibiotics.
Due to the fact that my infection was not treated quickly enough, I spent nearly three weeks recovering on antibiotics, and I more or less could not walk during this time. Don’t repeat my mistake! Take preventive measures and keep any cut or wound clean and well covered.