Cellulitis Treatments: 6 Things To Try

Cellulitis pain relief and treatment at home are possible—but see a healthcare provider first.

Cellulitis is a skin infection that can cause redness, itching, pain, and swelling. It's usually pretty easy for a healthcare provider to treat, but it can sometimes be serious. Cellulitis can appear anywhere on the body, but it most commonly occurs on the arms or legs. Healthcare providers can usually diagnose this condition by its symptoms. Lab tests aren't typically needed unless your treatment hasn't worked.

What Is Cellulitis?

It starts as red, painful, hot patches of skin and spreads to the tissues underneath. Sometimes, cellulitis can make its way into your system, making quick treatment important.

"The job of the skin is to keep bad things out of your body," said Arash Mostaghimi, MD, director of dermatology inpatient service at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "But if the skin's top layer is breached, bacteria can get into the layer beneath it, and it can eventually make its way into the bloodstream."

The hotness and swelling associated with cellulitis aren't the results of the bacteria but the immune system's reaction to it.

"It's your body's efforts to fight this infection by dilating blood vessels and recruiting white blood cells to that area," Dr. Mostaghimi explained. "This can make the skin tight and red and hot, and sometimes pus can form beneath the skin, as well."

Cellulitis Treatment

Once they diagnose cellulitis, healthcare providers usually recommend some or all of the following.

Oral Antibiotics

Healthcare providers can treat the "vast majority" of cellulitis cases with a short course of prescription oral antibiotics —usually enough for one to two weeks, Dr. Mostaghimi said.

The common bacteria streptococci or staphylococci often cause cellulitis, so they prescribe a broad-spectrum drug that is effective against both strains.

Most of the time, people start to feel better within a few days of their first dose. Their skin starts to look better, too.

Any time you take antibiotics, it's important not to stop until they are all gone or until your healthcare provider tells you that you can—even if you feel better sooner. That prevents the infection from sticking around and coming back later.

Wound Cleaning and Draining

Sometimes, cellulitis can cause an abscess or a pus-filled area under the skin. If this happens, your healthcare professional will likely drain and clean the wound, then apply a covering to help the wound heal and prevent the pus from leaking.

By washing your hands frequently, you can avoid introducing more bacteria to cleaned wounds.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends staying out of:

  • Hot tubs
  • Swimming pools
  • Natural bodies of water (e.g., lakes, rivers, oceans)

IV Antibiotics

In rare cases, cellulitis doesn't get better with oral antibiotics alone. That may be because the infection has already spread to the bloodstream and traveled throughout the body. If this happens, symptoms may include a high fever, chills, and localized pain and swelling.

In this case, you may need IV antibiotics or a hospital stay. People who get cellulitis on their face (called facial cellulitis) or in their eye (called orbital cellulitis) may also need IV antibiotics since these types of cellulitis can be more severe and may not respond as effectively to oral antibiotics.

Pain Relief and At-home Treatment

People taking antibiotics to treat their cellulitis can also help their healing by taking good care of the affected area at home. For example, if you have cellulitis on an arm or a leg, keeping that limb elevated can help reduce swelling and discomfort.

Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines may also help relieve pain and swelling, Dr. Mostaghimi said.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend the following:

  • Covering the affected area
  • Wearing compression wraps or stockings
  • Using a cool, damp cloth on the affected skin

Your healthcare provider can show you what bandages or dressings you should use and how to clean your skin thoroughly before covering it.

Any time a person is injured or sick, getting enough rest—and practicing relaxation and stress reduction—can also be essential parts of the recovery process.

Research suggests that skimping on sleep and being subjected to chronic psychological stress can harm wound healing.

Ruling Out Other Conditions

If cellulitis isn't getting better with antibiotics, ensure another condition isn't causing the symptoms. According to Dr. Mostaghimi and some studies, sometimes healthcare providers misdiagnose other types of infection as cellulitis. Misdiagnosis can delay getting the proper treatment.

"Our research shows that when people go to the emergency room or their primary care doctor, and the diagnosis is cellulitis, probably about a third of those cases are incorrect," Dr. Mostaghimi said.

"If you have cellulitis that doesn't respond to treatment or that keeps coming back in a surprising way, it may be time to check in and say, 'Hey, maybe I don't have this; maybe we should broaden the list of things that this could be,'" Dr. Mostaghimi added.

Treating the Underlying Cause

Healthcare providers don't always know why someone gets cellulitis. Bacteria that are usually harmless and live on the skin often cause it. It's not always clear why or how they get into the body and trigger an infection.

"There are definitely times in which we get a cut or scrape or a splinter, and it gets infected, and that can certainly be cellulitis," Dr. Mostaghimi said. "But a lot of times, we see patients who suddenly got it on their leg or arm, and we can't identify a form of entry for the bacteria—it must be something microscopic or something very temporary."

Some skin conditions like dermatitis or athlete's foot can sometimes lead to cellulitis. That's because they can cause tiny cracks in the skin's surface and make it vulnerable to infection.

People with obesity, chronic illnesses, or weakened immune systems may also be at increased risk for skin infections. In these cases, ensure you're treating those underlying risk factors, along with the cellulitis, to prevent it from returning.

A Quick Review

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin and the layers beneath it. It's often caused by common bacteria that find their way into your skin. It's usually pretty easy to treat, but it can become serious. So, it's important to see a healthcare provider who can diagnose and treat cellulitis, usually with oral antibiotics.

Some ways you can treat cellulitis at home include taking all your prescribed antibiotics, treating any underlying causes, keeping the area clean, and using over-the-counter pain medicine as needed.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Group a streptococcal (GAS) disease.

  2. American Academy of Dermatology Association. Cellulitis: diagnosis and treatment.

  3. House SL. Psychological distress and its impact on wound healing: an integrative review. Journal of Wound, Ostomy & Continence Nursing. 2015;42(1):38-41. doi: 10.1097/WON.0000000000000080.

  4. Weng QY, Raff AB, Cohen JM, et al. Costs and consequences associated with misdiagnosed lower extremity cellulitisJAMA Dermatol. 2017;153(2):141. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2016.3816

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