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What Is Cellulitis of the Legs?

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  • Written By: Jacquelyn Gilchrist
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 21 September 2016
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Cellulitis of the legs is a skin infection caused by bacteria. While it does most commonly infect the legs, a patient may also have cellulitis on his arms or head. Patients typically experience pain and swelling in their legs after the bacteria infects them through a scrape or a cut in the skin. They should seek medical attention as soon as possible, as this infection can cause potentially life-threatening complications. Treatment for cellulitis of the legs includes taking an antibiotic.

Some people may be at a higher risk of developing cellulitis of the legs than others. Those with a weakened immune system, which can be caused by the use of certain medications, are less likely to fight off the bacteria. People with diabetes, chickenpox, or any other infection may also contract cellulitis more readily. The elderly may be more prone to this infection due to poor blood circulation. In addition, those with skin conditions, such as a fungal infection, shingles, or athlete's foot, are more apt to develop breaks in the skin, which may become infected.

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The specific cause of cellulitis of the legs is most often one or two types of bacteria, called staphylococcus and streptococcus. Sometimes, the staphylococcus bacteria is an antibiotic-resistant strain, called methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This bacteria enters the body through an abrasion or dry, flaky skin. Sometimes, an insect or spider bite may result in a cellulitis infection. Those who suffer from dry or abraded skin should be aware of the typical symptoms of cellulitis.

People who notice redness, tenderness, and warmth on the legs may have cellulitis. Other symptoms often include pain and swelling, and some patients may suffer from a fever. The affected area can spread and may develop small, red spots, accompanied by blisters that can burst. Those who notice any possible symptoms of cellulitis should seek emergency medical help.

After a doctor diagnoses a patient with cellulitis, he will usually prescribe an oral antibiotic which may be taken for up to two weeks. It is essential for the patient to follow dosing instructions carefully, and the full course of antibiotics must be completed, even if the patient's symptoms abate. Patients should schedule a follow-up appointment after about two to three days to check on their response to the medication. Those who do not respond well to antibiotics may need to be hospitalized and given antibiotics intravenously, or through a vein.

When a patient does not get medical help quickly enough, serious complications may develop from cellulitis of the legs. The infection can penetrate beyond the skin to the underlying tissues. It can enter the bloodstream and infect the lymph nodes, which may cause chronic swelling. Rarely, patients may suffer from necrotizing fasciitis, which is a deep-layer infection that can cause systemic shock and death if it is not treated very quickly.

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