Treatment Options for Cellulitis

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Cellulitis is not a minor infection. Left untreated, it can spread to the blood and cause a life-threatening infection. When you catch the infection early, most people can stay at home during treatment. However, severe cases of cellulitis require hospitalization. Outpatient cellulitis treatment has three main components: antibiotics, wound care, and self-care for comfort. 

Cellulitis Antibiotics

Antibiotics are the main treatment for cellulitis because bacteria cause it. If you notice symptoms of cellulitis, such as a swollen, warm area of redness that grows or spreads, see your doctor right away. Prompt antibiotic treatment can stop it from progressing to a more serious infection.

Doctors use antibiotics that will cover the two most common cellulitis bacteria—staphylococci and streptococci. 

Cellulitis antibiotics include:

  • Amoxicillin/clavulanate (Augmentin)

  • Cephalexin (Keflex) or dicloxacillin (Dynapen)

  • Levofloxacin (Levaquin) or moxifloxacin (Avelox)

  • Azithromycin (Zithromax) or clarithromycin (Biaxin)

In recent years, MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) has become a more common cause of cellulitis. MRSA is challenging because it is resistant to many standard antibiotics. If your doctor suspects MRSA, different antibiotics are necessary. This may be the case if pus is draining from the rash or you have other high-risk symptoms, such as skin peeling.

MRSA options include:

  • Clindamycin (Cleocin)

  • Doxycycline (Vibramycin and others)

  • Trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim DS, Septra DS)

A 7- to 10-day course is usually enough to clear most cases of cellulitis. Sometimes, doctors prescribe 14 days. You should see signs of improvement within a few days of starting antibiotics. However, it is possible for symptoms to worsen before they get better. Ask your doctor about symptoms that should prompt you to call.
It is important to take the entire course your doctor prescribes, even after you start to feel better. The infection can return if you fail to finish all the antibiotics. Recurrent infections can be harder to treat.

Oral antibiotics may not be enough if cellulitis is growing rapidly or if you have a fever or other symptoms of a severe infection. In this case, treatment requires hospitalization for IV (intravenous) antibiotics.

Wound Care

If you have an open sore or your doctor drains an abscess, your doctor will give you wound care instructions. This may involve special wound coverings or dressings. Even if you don’t have a sore or wound, you can still protect your skin to help it heal. In general, you can care for your infected skin by washing it every day. Pat the area dry and cover with a gauze bandage.

Ask your doctor if it is safe for you to use petroleum jelly as a protective layer under the gauze.

Home Remedies for Comfort

You can take steps at home to improve your comfort while you heal. For cellulitis on the leg or arm, elevate the limb above the level of the heart. This will help reduce swelling and can speed healing. Ask your doctor about wearing compression wraps or stockings.

You can also apply cool compresses to the infected area. The coolness helps ease discomfort and reduce swelling. This may feel especially good for cellulitis on the face. You can use a cool compress as often as you like. Ask your doctor about over-the-counter pain relievers if compresses aren’t enough to ease your pain.

Is Cellulitis Contagious? 

Cellulitis is an infectious disease, but rest assured most forms are not contagious. You probably can’t pass it along to others. But it’s still important to practice good hygiene and protect yourself from other germs. Wash your hands regularly and don’t share towels with anyone.

With proper treatment, you will feel like yourself again soon. In the meantime, take it easy and get plenty of rest. Fighting infections and healing your tissues are stresses to your body. Once you have recovered, talk with your doctor about your risk of future episodes. Ask about strategies to protect your skin.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jun 28
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