Causes of cellulitis

Cellulitis is caused by bacteria, usually Streptococcus pyogenes or Staphylococcus aureus. The infection begins where the skin is damaged or inflamed and then can spread through the skin layers.

The bacteria that cause cellulitis might live on the skin, and get into the skin layers through a break in the skin. Many things can cause skin breaks, including splinters, abrasions, insect bites or skin problems like ringworm or eczema. Often you might not know what has caused the skin break.

Symptoms of cellulitis

If your child has cellulitis, he might first complain only of mild soreness in one area of skin. Look carefully to see whether there are any cuts, scratches or insect bites nearby on his skin.

Your child might have swollen lymph nodes in the area - for example, under her arm if the infection is somewhere on the skin of her arm. This is because her immune system is fighting the local infection.

The infected area might look red and swollen, and the skin might feel warm to the back of your hand. It might hurt your child if you touch it. Sometimes you might see pus or blisters in the area.

Your child might also develop a fever, lose his appetite, seem tired and feel generally unwell.

When to see your doctor about cellulitis

See your GP if your child has any of the symptoms described above, or if you're worried.

Treatment for cellulitis

If you suspect your child has cellulitis, see your GP.

Your GP might take a swab of the infected area and will prescribe an appropriate antibiotic for your child to take by mouth. Your child should start taking the antibiotic straight away.

If there's fluid or pus in the wound, the GP might drain it. This often relieves the pain quickly.

If your child has cellulitis of the leg or arm, it's a good idea to rest the limb as much as possible, using a sling or a splint if your child can manage this. Also raise the limb by laying your child down or resting the limb on a cushion. This will help to reduce swelling and pain.

Pain medication like paracetamol taken in recommended doses can also help reduce discomfort.

Cellulitis usually gets better quickly if your child takes the full course of antibiotic and rests. Your GP might want to see your child daily to make sure that the treatment is working.

It's helpful to draw a line around the margins of the cellulitis with a permanent marker pen, so you can see how the area of the infection changes from day to day. Don't wash this line off - it can help you and the GP work out whether the infection is spreading or getting better.

If your child is really unwell, he might have to spend some time in hospital so he can have antibiotics directly into a vein through a drip.

Cellulitis prevention

The best way to prevent cellulitis is by cleaning all cuts and abrasions as soon as they happen with cool running water.

Wipe with saline or diluted antiseptic solution. If the cut or abrasion isn't bleeding, put a thin smear of a plain moisturiser or ointment like Vaseline on it. Then cover it with a sterile, non-stick dressing.