SKIN infections are extremely common and, most of the time, not serious. But that can change — quite rapidly — if the infection spreads to the deeper skin layers, known as cellulitis.

The infection can come on suddenly and it’s usually easily treatable.

A speedy diagnosis and treatment is crucial, as the infection can prove deadly if not picked up early, and sometimes hospitalisation is required.

CAUSES

Cellulitis occurs when bacteria that normally live on the skin without causing problems get inside the skin through a break in the surface, such as an insect bite, cut or scratch, a leg ulcer, or a crack in dry skin caused by eczema or athlete’s foot.

You’re more at risk of cellulitis if you are obese, have diabetes that’s poorly managed, a weakened immune system through HIV or chemotherapy, poor circulation or lymphoedema, which causes fluid to build up under your skin.

However, anyone can potentially get cellulitis.

SYMPTOMS

Cellulitis develops quickly and can affect any part of the body, but it’s most common on the lower legs, feet, hands and arms, and sometimes on the face around the eyes.

Your skin may become hot, swollen, painful or tender. You may notice additional symptoms before or along with those above, such as feeling sick, shivering, chills or feeling generally unwell.

See your GP as soon as possible if an area of your skin suddenly turns red, painful and hot. If it is not possible for you to see your GP you should visit your local emergency department.

If you have any of the symptoms below, go to A&E as soon as possible as the infection may have spread to deeper tissue layers:

  • A high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • A fast heartbeat or fast breathing
  • Being sick
  • Diarrhoea
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Confusion or disorientation
  • Cold, clammy, pale skin
  • Unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness.

TREATMENT

If you end up in hospital you’ll be given an intravenous drip or injection of antibiotics.

At home, you’ll have a regular course of antibiotics to take for up to a week, but you may need a longer course depending on your infection.

The following steps can help to ease your symptoms and aid your recovery:

  • Take paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain
  • Raise the affected body part to reduce swelling — for example, if your leg is affected, rest it on pillows or a chair when you’re sitting or lying down
  • Try to regularly move the joint near the affected body part, such as your wrist or ankle, to stop it getting stiff
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • If you usually wear compression stockings — for example, for lymphoedema — avoid these until you’ve recovered.

www.hse.ie/eng/health/az/


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