What are they?
Cellulitis is an infection of the layer of tissue just beneath the skin (subcutaneous tissue). Erysipelas is similar to cellulitis, but the infection is usually closer to the surface as it also affects the dermis (the layer of skin just above the one involved in cellulitis) in addition to the subcutaneous tissue. There is usually a site of entry of the bacteria causing the infection such as a cut around the area or a fungal infection of the foot.
Cellulitis and erysipelas are so similar that it is quite difficult to distinguish between them, and they are both treated the same way too.
What are the symptoms?
Cellulitis and erysipelas make an area of the skin turn red, feel hot and painful to touch. Cellulitis is more likely to occur on the legs or arms, while erysipelas more often affects the face and has a more defined raised border. The affected area may appear swollen and the skin may blister. The affected person may feel generally ill and feverish.
What treatments work?
It is important to see a doctor if you have the above symptoms. Treatment is with antibiotics such as penicillin. Erythromycin or Ciprofloxacin may be used instead in individuals who react to penicillin. These usually take care of the infection effectively. However, in severe cases, the antibiotics may be given in drip form.
Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may be useful to reduce the pain while you wait for the antibiotics to take effect. The doctor should treat the source of infection properly to reduce the chances of the cellulitis or erysipelas coming back.
What will happen to me?
With appropriate treatment, cellulitis or erysipelas resolves completely in about two weeks. Sometimes, the infection may get into the blood and spread to other parts of the body. This happens if the cellulitis or erysipelas is not treated in time or if the antibiotics fail.
The infection can also come back some years after treatment. The chances of this happening is higher if the affected arm or leg is still swollen after treatment of the infection. This happens to about 7 in 100 people who get cellulitis in their leg. Cellulitis around the eye could spread into the brain if not treated early enough.