Cellulitis is a common but potentially serious bacterial skin infection of the deeper layers of the skin and the subcutaneous tissues, where the skin has broken open, such as a cut, scrape, insect bite, ulcer, burn, surgical wound, or where the skin is breaking down from conditions like eczema, psoriasis or a fungal infection (1).
Normally the bacteria that are present on the skin do not cause harm; unless they are able to penetrate deep into the skin. Nicks in the skin allow these bacteria to get beneath the skin surface and cause infection.
A cellulitis infection can be caused by many types of bacteria, though the major culprits are Staphylococcus aureus (staph) and Streptococcus pyogenes (strep) bacteria.
At present, cellulitis is more frequently caused by a notorious drug-resistant bacteria called methicillin-resistant staphylococcal aureus or popularly known as MRSA (2).
Infections caused by this bacteria lead to skin blisters or more severe deep-rooted infections. Insect bites like certain spider bites, animal bites can also transmit bacteria that cause infection. Several factors can place you at risk of contracting cellulitis.
Some of them include a weakened immune system, chicken pox or shingles, diabetes, obesity, blood circulation problems, lymphedema, drug misuse, and a history of cellulitis increases the risk of developing this problem.
Although the infection mostly occurs on the lower legs, it may occur anywhere on your body. The affected area usually looks red and swollen and feels hot, tender, and painful. Cellulitis is not contagious as the outer skin layer remains intact.
Most cases of cellulitis are mild and tend to resolve within several days or a few weeks, but at times, it may progress to a more serious infection or other dangerous problems. In fact, if left untreated, it can be potentially fatal.
Complications can arise if the cellulitis-causing bacteria enter the lymph nodes and bloodstream. In rare cases, it can also infect the deeper layer of tissue called the fascial lining (3). Certain types of flesh-eating strep are an example of this type of infection and this needs immediate medical attention.
So, do consult your doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment, especially if the infection is severe and does not get better within a few days, the rash is rapidly changing, or if you have fever accompanying the infection, or if you have any other medical problems.
Here are the top 10 home remedies for cellulitis.
Along with the natural treatments, it is essential to take the entire course of antibiotics prescribed by your healthcare provider.
1. Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil or Melaleuca oil is well reputed for its potent antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties. This has led to its widespread use in cosmetics and for the treatment of skin infections. Scientific evidence shows that it is effective in treating acne with fewer side effects (4).
Clinical trials have demonstrated that it is effective against oral candidiasis and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), the bacteria generally responsible for cellulitis infection (5). Tea tree oil is highly beneficial for treating cellulitis.
- Moisten a cotton swab with water and put one or two drops of tea tree essential oil on it. Dab it on the site of the infection. Leave it on for a few hours before washing it off.
- Alternatively, you can mix a couple of drops of tea tree oil in one teaspoon of aloe vera gel or raw honey. Apply it on your skin and leave it on for a few hours before rinsing it off.
Use either of these remedies once or twice daily until you are satisfied with the results.
Author’s note: Users report that it is safe, effective and gives quick results. It can be used topically along with antibiotic treatment.
2. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is used traditionally to moisturize the skin in many parts of the world. It has proven antiseptic properties and contains medium-chain fatty acids, particularly lauric acid which helps fight bacteria. Monolaurin, a by-product of coconut, was able to inhibit both gram positive and gram negative bacteria isolated from skin infections.
Both virgin coconut oil and monolaurin have shown significant antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, and so, have been recommended for the treatment of dermatitis (6). Coconut oil is also soothing for the skin and has healing properties.
- Apply coconut oil on the affected area.
- Leave it on for a few hours and then wash it off.
- Reapply several times a day until the problem is resolved.
Turmeric is a powerful natural antibiotic and antiseptic to prevent and treat cellulitis. Its active ingredient curcumin also provides anti-inflammatory benefits.
Turmeric is used in several dermatological applications like psoriasis, acne, wound healing, and keloids as it blocks or promotes molecular pathways that are involved in these diseases (7).
- Mix one teaspoon of turmeric powder in a glass of milk and boil it. You can also add a little honey. Drink this turmeric milk once or twice daily until the infection clears.
- Alternatively, you can take 400 to 600 mg of standardized curcumin powder, three times daily for several weeks to a couple of months.
- You can also make a turmeric poultice by mixing one tablespoon of raw honey, one teaspoon of turmeric powder and three drops of tea tree oil in one or two teaspoons of bentonite clay, enough to make a paste. Apply it on the affected area and leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes before rinsing it off. Use it daily for a few days.
Note: Turmeric should not be consumed for medicinal purposes if you have gallbladder problems as the problem can aggravate. If you are taking diabetic medications or have blood clotting disorders.
Calendula is soothing for the tender and inflamed skin and fights infection. Calendula flower water decoction is used traditionally to treat various skin conditions caused by bacteria.
A study published in 2008 demonstrated that water-soluble extracts of calendula had the highest inhibitory activity against a broad range of bacteria especially S. aureus (8).
Plus, it increases blood flow to the affected area and also stimulates the production of collagen, thereby promoting wound healing.
- Steep two teaspoons of calendula flowers in a cup of hot water for about 10 minutes. Dip a clean piece of cloth in this infusion and apply it on the affected area. Leave it on for 15 to 20 minutes. Repeat three or four times daily for a few weeks.
- You can also apply calendula cream a few times a day until you see improvement.
5. Oil of Oregano
Being nature’s antibiotic, oil of oregano is another effective home remedy for cellulitis. It has very potent antibacterial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Terpinene is a major active constituent of oregano oil. It contains phenolic compounds like carvacrol and thymol with antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory qualities.
A study published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology found that the application of a 3 percent oregano extract ointment reduced bacterial contamination and subsequent infection in patients with post-surgical wounds. There are many studies that demonstrate the broad range antimicrobial activity of oregano oil against several bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus and also the deadly MRSA (9).
- Dilute 10 to 12 drops of oil of oregano in two tablespoons of olive oil/ coconut oil/ jojoba oil or any other carrier oil. Apply it on the affected area and leave it on for a few hours. Wash it off and reapply several times a day.
- You can also take this oil internally. Mix three drops of oil of oregano in one tablespoon of coconut oil. You can also add one teaspoon of honey. Consume this mixture five times daily for three or four days. Then, take it three times daily for seven to 10 days.
- Another option is to mix five drops of oil of oregano in a glass of water or fruit juice. Drink it three to five times daily for a few days and then reduce the dosage to three drops as a maintenance dose for about 10 days.
Note: Do not use full-strength oil of oregano on broken skin. The concentration of oregano oil for topical use should not be more than 1% as it can irritate the mucous membranes. Pregnant women should avoid taking oil of oregano because it can stimulate the uterus and induce labor.
6. Manuka Honey
Manuka honey is a native product of New Zealand. It is rich in phytochemicals like methylglyoxal (MG) that are effective in controlling staph infections. The active compounds in this honey have also been found to inhibit antibiotic-resistant MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
Manuka honey also helps speed up wound healing. Although the exact mechanism for its validated antimicrobial activity has not been unraveled, many researchers think that the physical properties of honey may be responsible for this. It is also a very strong anti-inflammatory agent (10).
- Spread manuka honey on the affected area.
- Leave it on for a few hours before washing it off.
- Do this a few times a day until you are satisfied with the results.
Note: You can purchase Manuka honey from your locl drug store or even online. To be potent, manuka honey is rated by a factor called the UMF (Unique manuka factor). This UMF rating is supposed to correspond to its methylglyoxal (MG) content. Buy manuka honey with a minimum UMF of 10. Always check for active manuka honey or UMF manuka honey. If manuka honey is not available, go for raw organic honey.
Being packed with flavonoids, fenugreek seeds can be used externally on the skin to reduce skin inflammation and infections.
Fenugreek seeds have a high content of saponins and protein. In addition to this, fenugreek is rich in polyphenols that are responsible for its therapeutic properties.
Fenugreek has been used in folk medicine to treat cellulitis. Its antibacterial activity has also been confirmed by several studies (11).
- Soak two tablespoons of fenugreek seeds in warm water for a few hours.
- Grind them along with a little water to make a paste.
- Apply this paste on the affected area.
- Leave it on for a few hours before rinsing it off.
- Repeat once daily until the symptoms associated with cellulitis improve.
Garlic is another natural antibiotic for fighting infections, thanks to its active compound allicin that has strong antimicrobial properties.
Plus, it helps reduce inflammation due to its anti-inflammatory activity.
A study published in 2015 confirmed the antibacterial properties of raw garlic against both gram positive and gram negative bacteria including Staphylococcus aureus, which is mainly responsible for cellulitis (12). Regular garlic intake also helps boost the body’s immunity.
- Eat three or four crushed raw garlic cloves daily for several weeks. If you are bothered by its strong taste and smell, then drink a glass of milk afterward.
- You can also fry two crushed garlic cloves in coconut oil, cool and strain the oil, and apply it on the affected area. Leave it on for several hours before washing it off. Use it once or twice daily.
- Simply applying crushed garlic cloves on the infected site for a few minutes may also help, but it is not suitable for those with sensitive skin.
Echinacea can also be used to treat cellulitis because it strengthens the immune system. Echinacea extracts are rich in alkamides, polysaccharides, and caffeic acid compounds that are responsible for many of the therapeutic properties of this medicinal plant.
It also contains flavonoids with antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties (13). It also aids in boosting the body’s immune system.
You can take this herb internally or apply topically on the skin in the form of gel or cream to treat skin irritation and inflammation. Consult your doctor before taking this herb for proper dosage.
Note: Echinacea is not suitable for those suffering from autoimmune disorders such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, or rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia or tuberculosis.
10. Activated Charcoal
Being porous, activated charcoal helps draw out toxins and chemical impurities that contribute to skin inflammation and infections.
Activated charcoal has the power to adsorb a variety of drugs and toxic agents that are in solution form and in direct contact with its surface (14).
- Mix one tablespoon each of activated charcoal powder and ground flaxseed along with sufficient water to make a paste.
- Spread it on a piece of paper towel and cover it with another paper towel.
- Place this poultice on the affected area, cover with plastic wrap and secure it with tape.
- Leave it on for a few hours or overnight.
- Do this daily for a few days.
If the infection spreads and you experience symptoms like fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes, rapid breathing or fatigue, contact your doctor immediately.
You can take the following precautions when you have a wound on your skin in order to prevent the occurrence of cellulitis and other infections.
- Clean and gently wash your wound daily with a good antiseptic soap and water.
- Apply an antiseptic cream or ointment on your wound.
- Cover large or deep wounds with a clean bandage, which should be changed regularly.
- Monitor your wound for any signs of infection like redness, pain, and drainage. Go for a medical evaluation if required.
- People with diabetes should be extra cautious in guarding themselves against skin injury.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Dr. Anne Truitt, MD (Dermatologist)
What is cellulitis and how does it affect the skin?
Cellulitis is an infection of the deeper skin and subdermal tissue with symptoms of redness, swelling, warmth, pain and in more severe cases blisters, pustules, and necrotic (dead) tissue. Focusing on cellulitis in the immunocompetent patient, the most common bacteria involved are group A streptococci and Staphylococcal aureus.
Bacteria most often enter through a break in the skin. Potential risk factors for cellulitis in adults include lymphedema, alcoholism, diabetes mellitus, IV drug abuse, and peripheral vascular disease. Children most often get cellulitis on the head and neck, while in adults it is most common on the extremities.
Is cellulitis a fatal condition?
Most cases are of uncomplicated cellulitis, and they usually resolve with oral antibiotics. Accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment are key. Cellulitis can be fatal if not treated appropriately and can spread to deeper tissues, the lymph system, blood stream, and organs.
Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious skin and soft tissue infection extending to and involving deep to the fascia; it is a medical emergency requiring IV antibiotics and surgical intervention.
Is it possible to cure cellulitis without any antibiotic treatment?
It is recommended to treat cellulitis with oral antibiotics. The recommendations are usually a penicillin derivative or doxycycline/clindamycin/trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole for penicillin-allergic patients or those thought to have MRSA. For more serious infections, IV antibiotics may be required.
Keeping the wound site clean and covered, leg elevation, cool compresses, and NSAIDs can aid in the relief of symptoms and increase healing time.
Is cellulitis contagious?
No. Cellulitis is not spread from person to person. It is often acquired through a breach in the skin barrier, i.e. injuries, diabetes, eczema, surgical procedures, IV drug use, and lymphedema.
Is warm compress beneficial for cellulitis?
There is discrepancy for the recommendation of a warm or cool compress. Warm compresses are thought to dilate blood vessels allowing more inflammatory/healing cells to the site as well as assisting with release of any small abscesses.
Cool compresses are thought to be more relieving as the infection site is often warm. If you are keeping the site clean and covered, taking antibiotics, and resting, your choice of warm versus cold should be what makes you feel better.
Is it safe to pop the blisters of cellulitis?
It is not recommended to pop the blisters of an infection. This can introduce another nidus of infection. Simply keep the site clean and covered. Chlorohexidine (Hibiclens) is an over-the-counter and a good choice for cleaning wound sites.
Can cellulitis lead to permanent nerve damage?
Uncomplicated cases of cellulitis do not usually lead to nerve damage. Untreated infections that spread to deeper tissues or necrotizing fasciitis can cause permanent nerve damage due to the severity of infection and increased likelihood for the need of surgical debridement (removal of dead tissue).
Please provide some additional tips or inputs on how to reduce the risk of developing cellulitis.
- Clean wound sites with antibacterial soap and continue daily wound care until healed.
- If you have diabetes, wear protective shoes and check your feet often for injuries. Diabetes can cause nerve damage making injury detection more difficult.
- Protect your skin: gloves for gardening, pants when hiking, padding for elbows/knees for skating
- Seek medical attention if there are signs of redness, swelling, drainage, or fever.
About Dr. Anne Truitt, MD: Dr. Truitt is a Board Certified Specialist in Dermatology and has special expertise in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancers to include melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancer, and other types of skin growths.
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