Skin Health

The Dangers of Cellulitis

When  NFL defensive end J.J. Watt asked for some skin cream to clear up the bumps on his leg, his trainer got him what he really needed: a trip to the hospital and intensive intravenous antibiotics. That lucky call kept the Pro Bowler in the game.

That’s the scary part of these infections. What may seem like a minor skin problem can develop into an extremely serious medical situation if not treated promptly.

We can’t afford to ignore any cut, no matter how small.

“Cellulitis” is the label for infections triggered when bacteria in our environment gain entry through an opening on our skin – even a small crack we may not be aware of. When people talk about “staph” infections, they’re actually referring to Staphylococcus aureus – one of the bacteria responsible for cellulitis. Others include Streptococcus pyogenes. These bacteria may be harmless elsewhere, but if they get under our skin they can create big health problems.

The American Academy of Dermatology says that about 14.5 million cases are diagnosed each year.

Left untreated, cellulitis bacteria can spread to our blood and lymph nodes – and progress into a life-threatening situation. Obviously that’s very bad news, often requiring hospitalization and intravenous antibiotic treatment. But the good news is that, when treated early, these infections typically clear up with a visit to the doctor and a course of oral antibiotics.

During warmer weather, research shows, cases of cellulitis spike, increasing the need for awareness. If we notice red rash-like spots that change – expand, swell and become warm and tender to the touch – we need to see a doctor ASAP. Early intervention is key because advanced infections can cause permanent damage to the lymph system.


Here are my suggestions to aid in prevention and early identification of cellulitis infections,

  1. Don’t let a tiny cut become a BIG problem: Every nick deserves attention. Any skin wound requires regular cleaning with soap and water, as well as appropriate protection, such as Vaseline or an antibiotic ointment, and a covering. Unprotected, bacteria can enter very small openings and trigger infection.
  2. Treatment timetable? The sooner, the better: We need to act as soon as we notice an emerging infection. Redness, swelling, tenderness and warmth, as well as any symptoms like fever or fatigue, mean that we need immediate medical attention.
  3. Take care of other skin conditions. Athlete’s foot, eczema, dry skin – problems that cause cracks can allow bacteria in. Addressing these problems can help us to avoid infection.
  4. Understand your risk level: Athletes like J.J. Watt are at a higher risk due to injury and the locker-room environment. There are also several off-field risk factors we need to be aware of, including diabetes, excess weight, circulation problems, lymphedema, and immune-compromising diseases or medicines. Those with higher risk need to practice extra vigilance, in particular regularly checking their feet and legs – places that are especially susceptible to infections.
  5. Practice practical ‘pampering’: Treating our skin and our nails with TLC is more than cosmetic. It can protect our health: Regular moisturizing can prevent the cracks of dry skin. Staying well-manicured can forestall snags and nicks. These steps feel good – and they’re good for us.


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