Warning signs of skin condition cellulitis explained

Skin that suddenly swells and feels hot to the touch should never be ignored. Kate Whiting outlines the warning signs of cellulitis

Cellulitis is most common on the lower legs, feet, hands and arms
Kate Whiting

SKIN infections are extremely common, and most of the time, not serious. But that can change – quite rapidly – if the infection spreads to the deeper skin layers, known as cellulitis.

Stephen Fry was struck with the infection while filming scenes as the British Prime Minister in 24: Live Another Day two years ago. He was sent to hospital with a swollen ankle, which turned out to be cellulitis.

The infection can come on suddenly and – as Fry's tweets to fans indicated ("Being pumped & dripped with antibiotics...") – it's usually easily treatable.

But a speedy diagnosis and treatment is crucial, as the infection can prove deadly if not picked up early, and sometimes hospitalisation is required.


Cellulitis occurs when bacteria that normally live on the skin without causing problems get inside the skin through a break in the surface, such as an insect bite, cut or scratch, a leg ulcer, or a crack in dry skin caused by eczema or athlete's foot.

You're more at risk of cellulitis if you are obese, have diabetes that's poorly managed, a weakened immune system through HIV or chemotherapy, poor circulation or lymphoedema, which causes fluid to build up under your skin. However, anyone can potentially get cellulitis.


Cellulitis develops quickly and can affect any part of the body, but it's most common on the lower legs, feet, hands and arms, and sometimes on the face around the eyes.

Your skin may become hot, swollen, painful or tender.

You may notice additional symptoms before or along with those above, such as feeling sick, shivering, chills or feeling generally unwell.


The NHS states that if you notice any of the symptoms below, the infection may have spread to deeper tissue layers, muscles and the blood, and could be life-threatening, so you should call 999 or go to A&E immediately:

:: a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above

:: a fast heartbeat or fast breathing

:: being sick

:: diarrhoea

:: feeling dizzy or faint

:: confusion or disorientation

:: cold, clammy, pale skin

:: unresponsiveness or loss of consciousness


If you end up in hospital, you'll be given an intravenous drip or injection of antibiotics.

At home, you'll have a regular course of antibiotics to take for up to a week, but you may need a longer course depending on your infection.

The NHS also recommends the following steps to help yourself recover:

:: take paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain.

:: raise the affected body part to reduce swelling – for example, if your leg is affected, rest it on pillows or a chair when you're sitting or lying down.

:: try to regularly move the joint near the affected body part, such as your wrist or ankle, to stop it getting stiff.

:: drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

:: if you usually wear compression stockings – for example, for lymphoedema – avoid these until you've recovered.

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