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Cellulitis

Cellulitis

Cellulitis is an inflammation of the connective tissue underlying the skin, that can be caused by a bacterial infection. Cellulitis can be caused by normal skin flora or by exogenous bacteria, and often occurs where the skin has previously been broken: cracks in the skin, cuts, burns, insect bites, surgical wounds, or sites of intravenous catheter insertion. The mainstay of therapy remains treatment with appropriate antibiotics. Skin on the face or lower legs is most commonly affected by this infection, though cellulitis can occur on any part of the body. Cellulitis may be superficial — affecting only the surface of the skin — but cellulitis may also affect the tissues underlying the skin and can spread to the lymph nodes and bloodstream.

It is unrelated to cellulite, a cosmetic condition featuring dimpling of the skin.

Causes

Cellulitis is caused by a type of bacteria entering by way of a break in the skin. This break need not be visible. Group A streptococcus and staphylococcus are the most common of these bacteria, which are part of the normal flora of the skin but cause no actual infection until the skin is broken. Predisposing conditions for cellulitis include insect bite, animal bite, pruritic skin rash, recent surgery, athlete's foot, dry skin, eczema, burns and boils, though there is debate as to whether minor foot lesions contribute.

The appearance of the skin will help a doctor make a diagnosis. The doctor may also suggest blood tests, a wound culture or other tests to help rule out a blood clot deep in the veins of the legs. Cellulitis in the lower leg is characterized by signs and symptoms that may be similar to those of a clot occurring deep in the veins, such as warmth, pain and swelling.

This reddened skin or rash may signal a deeper, more serious infection of the inner layers of skin. Once below the skin, the bacteria can spread rapidly, entering the lymph nodes and the bloodstream and spreading throughout the body.

In rare cases, the infection can spread to the deep layer of tissue called the fascial lining. Necrotizing fasciitis, also called by the media "flesh-eating bacteria", is an example of a deep-layer infection. It represents an extreme medical emergency.

Risk factors

The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable to contracting cellulitis. Diabetics are more susceptible to cellulitis than the general population because of impairment of the immune system; they are especially prone to cellulitis in the feet because their disease causes impairment of blood circulation in their legs leading to their having foot ulcers that commonly become infected. Cellulitis is also a common complication of obesity.

Immunosuppressive drugs, HIV, and other illnesses or infections that weaken the immune system are also factors that make infection more likely. In addition, chickenpox and shingles often result in blisters which break, providing a gap in the skin through which bacteria can enter. Lymphedema, which causes swelling on the arms and/or legs, can also put an individual at risk.

Diseases that affect blood circulation in the legs and feet, such as chronic venous insufficiency and varicose veins, are also risk factors for cellulitis.

Cellulitis is also extremely prevalent amongst dense populations sharing hygiene facilities and common living quarters. Military installations which require communal showers provide such an environment, as it is prevalent among many recruits going through boot camp.

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