Cellulitis may seem to occur spontaneously, but the truth is that, upon closer look, most patients have a break in their skin where the offending bacteria (or fungi, in rare instances) have gained entry into their deeper dermis layers. However, just because the bacteria have touched your skin doesn't mean you'll feel the symptoms right away.
There is an incubation period for cellulitis (the time it takes for the infection to start causing symptoms), and the duration depends on the bacteria that caused the infection. Most types of bacteria have incubation periods that stretch up to several days, although some types, like Pasteurella multocida, (commonly obtained from animal bites) have a relatively short incubation period — the symptoms may manifest in 24 hours or less.1
Common Signs and Symptoms of Cellulitis to Watch Out For
The infection usually starts as a small and painful area on the skin, usually near the broken skin, such as near ulcers or surgical wounds.2 The infection will likely spread to the surrounding tissues, resulting in the common signs of inflammation, such as redness, swelling and warmth.3 Other cellulitis symptoms include:4
Swollen lymph nodes
These symptoms may occur very suddenly or may appear gradually, and the redness of the skin may expand over several hours or days. The most common infection sites on your body include the legs, arms and face, although this ailment can affect any part of your body. But does cellulitis itch? According to research, itchiness is not a typical symptom of this condition. What's more, the skin is usually shiny and smooth, and not raised or bumpy. Nevertheless, blisters or small pimples may still form on the affected areas.5
Is Cellulitis Contagious?
This ailment is not contagious because the infection occurs deep in the skin, and the upper portion does not get affected. Therefore, simple contact with an infected person will not mean that you will catch the disease.6
However, keep in mind that cellulitis-causing bacteria may be transmitted from one person to another through an open wound. So if someone in your home has a cellulitis infection while another person has an open wound, make sure that they clean their injury thoroughly with clean water and a safe soap.
When Should You Seek a Doctor?
If you notice unusual symptoms, such as a red and tender rash that's swollen and changing rapidly, consult your physician immediately. Some people do not take notice of these symptoms, believing that the infection will resolve on its own, but beware: Cellulitis, if not treated properly, may spread throughout your body and lead to severe complications.
Having recurrent episodes of this condition may damage your body's lymphatic drainage system, leading to chronic swelling of the affected limb. There are also rare cases where cellulitis infection can spread to very deep layers of the tissue, known as the fascial lining. One example of a deep-layer cellulitis infection is necrotizing fasciitis or flesh-eating bacteria. This is an extreme and life-threatening emergency.7