Kids Health Info

Cellulitis

  • 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:

    • an insect bite, burn, abrasion (scrape) or cut
    • a surgical wound
    • skin problems, such as eczema, psoriasis, scabies or acne
    • a foreign object in the skin, such as metal or glass.

    Anyone at any age can develop cellulitis. Antibiotics are needed to treat cellulitis.

    Signs and symptoms of cellulitis

    • Cellulitis usually starts as a small, swollen area of pain or warmth, with redness on the skin.
    • As this red area begins to spread, your child may start to feel sick and get a fever.
    • They may have swollen glands (lymph nodes) near the area of infected skin.

    Cellulitis is usually not contagious, however the bacteria can be spread through an open wound to another person.

    When to see a doctor

    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:

    • the affected skin is on the face
    • your child has a chronic illness (such as diabetes) or a problem with their immune system
    • your child has been bitten by an animal or human
    • the area of redness is spreading very quickly or is very painful.

    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.

    Care at home

    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.

    Key points to remember

    • Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin that often happens in areas where the skin is broken.
    • Treatment includes a course of antibiotics, rest and raising the affected area. Pain relievers can help reduce discomfort.
    • Always wash your hands before and after touching the infected area.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    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.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.


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Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.