Persistent Rash? It Might Be Cellulitis

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MDDecember 13th, 2021
senior skin infection

Have you been mindlessly scratching your skin for a while now? Pay attention. Although itchy skin rashes are common and most are harmless, some can be a sign of something more serious, such as cellulitis. Also, try not to scratch too much because you can easily break your already compromised skin. The resulting wound can then become infected and may leave a scar after it heals.

A minor skin rash should improve on its own within a few days. In the meantime, you should gently clean the affected area with warm water and a mild cleanser, then pat it dry (don’t scrub or rub your skin) and leave it exposed to the air as much as possible. If necessary, you can apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment as directed on the label.

How Do You Know if a Rash Is Serious?

Many skin rashes look-alike—red welts, dry scales, raised blotches—especially to the untrained eye. Therefore, it’s important to talk with a medical professional about any rash that:

  • Appears very suddenly
  • Seems to be spreading
  • Is painful, blistering, or dimpling
  • Is surrounded by bruising, swelling, or red streaks
  • Is warm or tender to the touch
  • Is discharging clear fluid or pus
  • Is accompanied by headache, fever, or chills

These symptoms could indicate cellulitis and warrant prompt medical attention. Additionally, if you experience emergency symptoms such as shortness of breath, throat tightening, or facial swelling, you should call 911 or go directly to the nearest hospital ER.

What Is Cellulitis?

Cellulitis is a common bacterial infection that affects the skin and the underlying soft tissues. The infection can be caused by different types of bacteria, but the most common culprit is group A Streptococcus (group A strep)—the same bacteria that cause strep throat. Usually, the bacteria enter the body through an opening in the skin, such as a wound, piercing, or surgical incision. Once inside the body, the bacteria multiply and spread.

Cellulitis is most commonly found on the arms, legs, and feet, but it can develop anywhere on the body. It is not contagious and cannot be spread from person to person.

How Do You Know if You Have Cellulitis?

Usually, a trained medical professional can diagnose cellulitis after examining the rash and asking questions such as:

  • When did you first notice the rash?
  • Does anything you do make the rash better or worse?
  • Do you have asthma, allergies, or diabetes?
  • Did you recently start using a new soap, lotion, cosmetic product, or detergent?
  • Did you recently travel or spend time in a wooded area?
  • Were you recently bitten by an insect or tick?
  • Did you recently try any new foods?
  • Did you recently start taking a new medication?

The provider may also take a blood or skin sample for testing in a lab. A bacterial culture can identify the organism responsible for the infection, which is an important consideration when determining the most appropriate treatment. An accurate diagnosis is essential because, like all bacterial infections, cellulitis requires treatment with a prescription antibiotic.

How Is Cellulitis Treated?

Most cellulitis infections can be effectively treated with a course of oral antibiotics. However, a serious infection may require hospitalization so that the antibiotics and fluids can be delivered intravenously to promote proper healing.

Can Cellulitis Be Prevented?

There is no vaccine available that can prevent cellulitis in particular or group A strep infections in general. And even if you’ve already had cellulitis, you can still get it again. In addition to frequent handwashing, the best way to protect yourself from bacterial skin infections is to learn and practice good wound care, which includes:

  • Thoroughly cleaning any cut, scrape, blister, or other break in your skin—no matter how minor—with warm water and a gentle cleanser
  • Keeping a draining wound covered with a clean, dry bandage until it fully heals
  • Staying out of swimming pools, hot tubs, oceans, lakes, rivers, and streams if you have an open wound or active infection

If you’d like to get to the bottom of a persistent skin rash, contact DispatchHealth today and benefit from our on-demand healthcare services. We have mobile medical teams available that can evaluate and treat your condition in the comfort of your home. We will come prepared with nearly all of the tools and technologies found in a traditional ER setting, allowing us to provide you with the expert care you need at a much lower cost.

Sources

DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

  1. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cellulitis/symptoms-causes/syc-20370762
  2. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/cellulitis
  3. https://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/guide/cellulitis
  4. https://www.pennmedicine.org/for-patients-and-visitors/patient-information/conditions-treated-a-to-z/rash
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/groupastrep/diseases-public/Cellulitis.html
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