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Cellulitis


What is cellulitis?

Cellulitis is an infection of the skin. Cellulitis causes the skin to be red, tender, warm and swollen. Sometimes there is swelling of nearby lymph nodes or red streaking from the infected area. If not treated, the infection may spread to deeper tissues or into the bloodstream.

What is the cause?

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria that enter through a break in the skin like a cut, scratch, splinter, puncture, burn, animal bite, insect bite or sting, or other type of wound. Sometimes there is no wound and the bacteria come from the bloodstream. Cellulitis can occur on any part of the body.

How is it diagnosed?

Cellulitis is diagnosed by looking at the skin. The signs of cellulitis are skin that is red, painful, and warm to the touch and may be swollen. Sometimes there are red streaks coming from the infected area. Your healthcare provider may use a small needle to obtain a sample of infected skin to send for a culture. If a severe infection is suspected blood tests or X-rays may be obtained.

If you think that your child has cellulitis, seek medical treatment immediately. If you notice your child has red, swollen, warm, painful skin, even if you do not see a recent wound, see your healthcare provider right away.

What is the treatment?

  • Antibiotics

    Your healthcare provider will prescribe an antibiotic for your child. An antibiotic taken by mouth will usually cure cellulitis. This infection is too serious to be treated with topical antibiotics. Your child must take this medicine for as long as prescribed, even if he feels better. The problem can get worse again if the medicine is stopped too soon.

    If the cellulitis is more serious, your child may need antibiotics given by vein (intravenous) and be admitted to the hospital.

  • Heat and elevation

    Apply a warm, moist towel or heating pad to the reddened area three times a day for 20 minutes at a time. Elevate the area as much as possible on pillows above the level of the heart to decrease swelling and pain.

  • Pain control

    Children's acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin or Advil) may be given for pain or fever over 102°F (38.9°C).

How can cellulitis be prevented?

Whenever your child has any type of skin wound, it is very important to keep the area as clean as possible. The best way to get rid of bacteria on the skin is to rinse it with water. You can do this by placing the wound it under running water for several minutes. Next, wipe the area with cotton soaked in hydrogen peroxide. Then cover with an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin or Bacitracin. This can be repeated 2 or 3 times a day.

Do not let your child scratch of pick at the wound. Topical or oral diphenhydramine (Benadryl) can help to reduce itching, but it may make your child sleepy.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • The swelling, redness, pain, or warmth spreads or worsens.
  • Red streaks develop from the infected area.
  • Your child has red, swollen, warm, painful skin, even if you do not see a wound.
  • The pain seems worse than it should be.
  • Your child's fever comes back after going away for 24 hours
  • Your child is sluggish or cranky
  • Your child is unable to drink fluids or keep the antibiotic down.
  • Your child starts to act very sick

Call within 24 hours if:

  • Your child still has a fever 48 hours after he or she started taking the antibiotic.
  • The swelling, redness, pain, or warmth is still there 48 hours after your child started taking the antibiotic.
  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-10
Last reviewed: 2010-11-29

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

Copyright © 1996-2014 The Children's Mercy Hospital