Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin. It can also affect the deeper layers of connective tissue beneath your skin and, in severe cases, spread to your lymph nodes. Bacteria get into the skin through a cut, scrape, or other laceration. Cellulitis most often affects the legs, but it may also affect the arms, face, and scalp. Generally, taking antibiotics cures cellulitis. However, the condition sometimes leads to serious complications. Without treatment, it can become life threatening.
Cellulitis is caused by bacteria, most often streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus, that get into the body through a break in the skin. In 50 - 60% of cases, there is some kind of skin injury (for example, cuts, insect bites, burns, surgical incisions, intravenous catheters, dermatitis). Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureua (MRSA) infection is a more serious type of staph infection and is on the rise. In the case of erysipelas, a type of cellulitis involving the lymph system, about one-third of cases are preceded by an upper respiratory infections. It is seen in infants, young children, and the elderly, and is generally caused by streptococcal infection.
You are at risk for developing cellulitis if you have the following:
If you have symptoms of cellulitis, you should see your doctor right away. If you have a fever with a rash, go to the emergency room. Your health care provider will do a thorough physical examination to see what is causing the condition and which antibiotic therapy to prescribe. Blood tests and imaging may also be used.
To help prevent cellulitis, follow these steps:
If you have a cut or scrape, wash the area gently with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic cream or ointment, and cover the area with a bandage. Change the bandage every day and watch for signs of infection.
If you have diabetes or circulatory problems, check your hands and feet daily for scrapes or cuts, or a fungus such as athlete' s foot. Keep your skin moisturized and don' t go barefoot.
Cellulitis is treated with antibiotics. To help ease pain, raise the affected arms or legs, keep still, and apply cool, wet, sterile bandages. If your symptoms aren't better after a few days, you may need hospitalization so doctors can give you antibiotics intravenously (IV).
Your health care provider will prescribe antibiotics for your infection as well as pain relievers if needed. Your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic that works against both staph and strep, such as cephalexin (Keflex). It is important to take the entire course of antibiotics, even if your symptoms go away before you finish.
If antibiotics don' t work, you may need surgery to drain any underlying abscess (infected tissue).
It is important to get conventional medical treatment for cellulitis. It can spread rapidly, so you should start antibiotics as soon as possible to prevent complications. Most alternative therapies have not yet been studied for use specifically in cellulitis. Some may reduce the risk of getting cellulitis or ease some of the symptoms when used along with conventional care. You should never treat cellulitis with alternative therapies alone. It is important to tell your doctor if you are taking any herbs or supplements because some may interfere with antibiotic therapy.
The following supplements may strengthen the immune system and help skin heal:
Researchers have not studied the ways specific nutrients may affect cellulitis. However, flavonoids -- compounds in such fruits as citrus, blueberries, grapes; in vegetables, including onions; and in tea and red wine -- seem to help reduce lymphedema and the risk of cellulitis. Quercetin (up to 1,000 mg two or three times per day) is a flavonoid available as a supplement.
Applied to the skin, honey may help wounds heal faster and keep infection at bay. Several studies show that honey, applied as a dressing after surgery, helps incisions heal without complications. Don' t apply honey to an open wound, and talk to your doctor before using honey for any cuts or scrapes.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, herbs should be taken with care, under the supervision of your health care provider. You may use herbs as dried extracts (capsules, powders, teas), glycerites (glycerine extracts), or tinctures (alcohol extracts). Unless otherwise indicated, you should make teas with 1 tsp. herb per cup of hot water. Steep covered 5 - 10 minutes for leaf or flowers, and 10 - 20 minutes for roots. Drink 2 - 4 cups per day. You may use tinctures alone or in combination as noted.
There are no scientific studies showing that herbs have a direct effect on cellulitis, but the following herbs may help strengthen the immune system and kill bacteria on the skin. Never apply herbal preparations to an open wound without asking your doctor first. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you use, because some can interfere with conventional treatment.
Taken by mouth:
Applied to the skin:
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths would recommend the following remedies for the treatment of cellulitis based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Seek immediate medical attention if fever and swelling do not subside after 24 hours.
Acupuncture other Traditional Chinese Medicine practices may help with the underlying cause of cellulitis and may strengthen the immune system. However, no scientific studies have been done to see if they work specifically for cellulitis. The practitioner should be very careful when piercing skin that may be infected, because there is a risk of spreading the infection further. Talk to your doctor first and use a qualified acupuncturist with experience in treating infectious skin disease.
Do not use massage if you have an active infection. However, massage that promotes lymph drainage, when used with compression and exercise, may help prevent cellulitis.
Antibiotics usually cure cellulitis. While complications are rare, they can be serious and even life threatening if the infection spreads to the blood. Complications are more common in very young children, the elderly, or in people who have immune system disorders. Possible complications include abscesses, gangrene (tissue destruction), and thrombophlebitis (inflammation of superficial veins). Some people are prone to recurrence of cellulitis, often in the same area, leading to permanent skin changes. Gangrene may result in loss of a limb.
Your health care provider should see you periodically to make sure you have no complications.
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