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Cellulitis is an infection of the skin. It is caused by bacteria – usually streptococcus or staphylococcus. These bacteria live on the skin and may enter an area of broken skin, causing pain, swelling, warmth and redness.
Cellulitis can affect skin on most parts of the body. Often there is no obvious cause for cellulitis, but it may start in areas that have had:
Anyone at any age can develop cellulitis. Antibiotics are needed to treat cellulitis.
Cellulitis is usually not contagious, however the bacteria can be spread through an open wound to another person.
There is a risk that the infection can spread to the rest of the body, so cellulitis almost always needs to be treated with antibiotics. All children with cellulitis should be seen by a doctor.
See your GP as soon as possible or take your child to a hospital emergency department if:
Most children with cellulitis will be prescribed oral antibiotics, which you can give at home. Your child should respond to the antibiotics and begin to show improvement within two to three days. If the infection does not get better, go back to your GP.
Often your child's doctor may draw around the redness on your child's skin, or ask you to take a photo to record the size. This allows you to compare the cellulitis before and after starting antibiotics.
More severe cellulitis may need treatment in hospital with antibiotics given directly into a vein through a drip (intravenous or IV therapy). It may be possible to have the IV therapy at home if your local hospital supports this.
Cellulitis around the eye area needs careful monitoring by a doctor.
Always wash your hands before and after touching the infected area, and make sure your child completes the full course of antibiotics.
Encourage your child to rest, and, if possible, raise the affected area. For example, place an arm in a sling or prop a leg on pillows. This may ease the pain and reduce swelling.
Pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can help reduce discomfort. All medication should be given according to the doctor's instructions. See our fact sheet
Pain relief for children.
You may be advised to make a follow-up appointment with your doctor to make sure the cellulitis is improving.
Why do I need to complete the antibiotics if my child looks
and feels better?
Not completing a full course of antibiotics may lead to the
bacteria becoming resistant to the antibiotic. It is important to ensure that
all of the bacteria causing the cellulitis has been eliminated, which is why
the course continues for many days after your child looks and feels better.
If my child gets cellulitis, does it mean they have a
weakened immune system?
Cellulitis occurs in otherwise healthy children
and does not necessarily mean your child has a weak immune system. Cellulitis
often occurs when skin is broken, such as with insect bites, eczema and small
cuts and abrasions. These things occur commonly in children, which is why
cellulitis is common.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital Short Stay unit. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed June 2018.
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