Cellulitis is a type of infection that affects the skin and the tissue underneath. The bacteria, most commonly group A streptococcal bacteria, enter the skin through an opening, such as cut, scrape, burn, or surgical incision, or even a bug bite or sting.
Cellulitis can cause sepsis in some people.
Sepsis, which was often called blood poisoning, is the body’s life-threatening response to infection. Sepsis and septic shock can result from an infection anywhere in the body, such as pneumonia, influenza, and urinary tract infections. Worldwide, one-third of people who develop sepsis die. Many who do survive are left with life-changing effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronic pain and fatigue, organ dysfunction (organs don’t work properly), and/or amputations. Like strokes or heart attacks, sepsis is a medical emergency that requires rapid diagnosis and treatment.
Where does cellulitis occur?
The infection is most common on the lower legs, but it can happen anywhere on the body. The symptoms of cellulitis include:
- Redness around the area where the bacteria entered the skin
- Tenderness, soreness of the affected area
- “Dimpling” of the skin
Risk factors for cellulitis
Anyone can develop cellulitis, but some people have a higher risk than others. If you fall into one of the higher risk categories, you should watch any injuries to the skin carefully.
- Impaired immune system: People who have an impaired immune system are more vulnerable to contracting infections. These include people who are undergoing chemotherapy or who take corticosteroids. Visit Sepsis and Impaired Immune System to learn more.
- Chronic illnesses: Illnesses like diabetes can increase your risk of developing infections. People with diabetes are particularly susceptible to getting sores on their feet and lower legs, which can become infected. You can learn more at Sepsis and Diabetes.
- Skin conditions or disorders: Skin conditions and disorders can cause breaks in the skin. These include eczema, shingles, even so-called childhood illnesses like chickenpox.
- Lymphedema: Lymphedema is a swelling of an arm or leg, most commonly caused by the removal of or damage to the lymph nodes as a part of cancer treatment. The swollen and stretched skin can crack.
- Obesity: People who are obese have a higher risk of having cellulitis and of getting it again.
- History of cellulitis: If you’ve had cellulitis before, you have a higher risk of getting it again.
People who are malnourished are also at higher risk of contracting infections.
If you suspect you have cellulitis, see your doctor or nurse practitioner as soon as possible. If you need antibiotics, it is vital that you take them as prescribed, right to the end of the prescription, even if it appears the infection has gone away before the prescription bottle is empty. Ask your doctor or nurse practitioner when you should start seeing improvement. If you feel that the infection is worsening or there is no improvement despite treatment, you should have the infection checked again.
If you suspect sepsis, call 9-1-1 or go to a hospital and tell your medical professional, “I AM CONCERNED ABOUT SEPSIS.”
The information here is also available as a Sepsis Information Guide, a downloadable format for easier printing.
Would you like to share your story about sepsis or read about others who have had sepsis? Please visit Faces of Sepsis, where you will find hundreds of stories from survivors and tributes to those who died from sepsis.
Updated February 7, 2023.