What Is Cellulitis—and Is This Life-Threatening Skin Condition Contagious?

Experts explain how to protect yourself from this scary bacterial infection.

Hives, rashes, acne—when something's up with your skin, it's usually not a pretty (or painless) experience. You may start to run down the list of possible culprits—you ate something you were allergic to, you spent too much time in the sun, or you were super stressed last week—and shrug them off as no big deal. But cellulitis, a potentially serious infection that can cause skin to become red, painful, and swollen, is not something you want to let go untreated too long.

"Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissues," Meghan Feely, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), tells Health.

Crazy enough, cellulitis is usually caused by bacteria that already live on your skin, namely streptococcus and staphylococcus bacteria, adds Noelani Gonzalez, MD, cosmetic dermatologist at Mount Sinai West in New York City.

Here's what you need to know about cellulitis—so you can hopefully avoid ever experiencing it.

How do you get cellulitis?

Cellulitis happens when bacteria get into your skin through something like a cut, scrape, burn, or insect bite. It's even possible for another skin condition such as athlete's foot or eczema to compromise your skin's barrier and allow bacteria in, Dr. Feely says. Intravenous drug users can also develop cellulitis where the drug is injected, she adds.

While cellulitis can happen to anyone, some people are more likely to develop the skin infection. "You are at increased risk if you have a weakened immune system, diabetes, chronic swelling of your legs or arms, or are an athlete who frequently injures their skin," Dr. Gonzalez says.

Other cellulitis risk factors include chronic kidney or liver disease, peripheral artery disease, and poor circulation, adds Dr. Feely.

Is cellulitis contagious?

Thankfully, cellulitis isn't usually spread from person to person, but if you have direct contact with someone with cellulitis, you should play it extra safe.

"Because cellulitis is caused by an infectious organism, people handling affected areas should use proper precautions when touching the area (i.e. gloves when changing bandages)," says board-certified dermatologist and AAD spokesperson Lauren Ploch, MD. "However, being in the same room with someone suffering from cellulitis does not increase your risk of cellulitis."

Cellulitis symptoms

You'll probably notice obvious symptoms on your skin first—and they can be very painful and uncomfortable. "The skin usually feels red and swollen, tender and warm to the touch," says Dr. Gonzalez.

Signs the infection is becoming more serious can include red streaks or a rash that's spreading quickly, fever, chills, or swollen lymph nodes, Dr. Gonzalez adds.

Cellulitis treatment

"If not treated in time, cellulitis can be a life-threatening infection," says Dr. Gonzalez, if it spreads to the blood. That's why it's crucial to get to the doctor's office ASAP if you think you have symptoms of cellulitis. "Prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics is vital," she says.

Oral antibiotics are usually enough to stop the infection, but in severe cases, cellulitis treatment may require IV antibiotics.

Once you're on antibiotics, your doctor will usually recommend proper wound care, rest, and elevating your legs to decrease swelling, says Dr. Feely.

How to prevent cellulitis

There are a few important ways you can protect yourself (and your skin) from cellulitis.

Keep the fingernails and toenails clean and in good shape. Nails can be magnets for bacteria, and scratching yourself with dirty claws can hand-deliver bacteria into your skin. Proper nail hygiene will keep bacteria under control.

Wash and bandage any wounds to prevent bacterial infection. Open wounds and injured skin can be entryways for cellulitis-causing bacteria. Properly disinfect and treat any skin injuries as soon as possible.

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. "Keep your skin clean and moisturized—moisturizing will prevent cracks that might lead bacteria into your skin," says Dr. Gonzalez.

Manage any chronic conditions. You're more susceptible to cellulitis if you have an underlying health concern like diabetes. Managing these conditions can help prevent a possible skin infection.

"If poor circulation is a pre-existing medical condition, follow your doctor's instructions regarding leg elevation and compression stockings," says Dr. Ploch. Consider making an appointment with a dermatologist to treat skin conditions that could lead to cellulitis, like athlete's foot or eczema.

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