Any area of skin can become infected with cellulitis if the skin is broken in some way. Cellulitis is a serious infection that needs treatment with antibiotics.
Key points to remember about cellulitis
- any area of skin can become infected with cellulitis
- cellulitis can develop from any break in the skin - even from something minor like an insect bite
- it can spread quite quickly
- cellulitis can be a serious infection - take your child to the doctor the same day
- children with cellulitis need treatment with antibiotics (by mouth)
- go to the doctor or hospital immediately if cellulitis is near your child's eye - this can be very serious
What is cellulitis?
- cellulitis is a infection of the deeper layers of the skin
- it usually affects one area of the body
What causes cellulitis?
Cellulitis is caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria are present on our skin all the time without causing infection. But, if they get through breaks in the skin, they can cause cellulitis. Cellulitis can get through breaks in the skin from:
- insect bites
Sometimes the break in the skin is too small to notice.
Once the bacteria are in the skin, they cause redness and swelling that can spread rapidly.
You can't catch cellulitis from another person.
What are the signs and symptoms of cellulitis in my child?
- the area of the body with cellulitis will look red and swollen
- it will feel warm and is often painful to touch
- there may be pus or fluid leaking from the skin
- the red area keeps growing - gently mark the edge of the infected red area with a pen to see if the red area grows bigger
- red lines may appear in the skin spreading out from the centre of the infection
- your child may feel unwell and they may have a fever
What should I do if my child has cellulitis?
When to see your doctor
Cellulitis can be a serious infection - take your child to the doctor the same day you suspect cellulitis.
Children with cellulitis need treatment with antibiotics (by mouth).
When to seek immediate medical help
Go to the doctor or hospital immediately if cellulitis is near your child's eye - this can be very serious.
Go to the hospital or call 111 (in New Zealand) immediately if your child with cellulitis has:
- a very high temperature or they feel hot and shivery
- a fast heartbeat or fast breathing
- cold, clammy, pale skin
What is the treatment for cellulitis?
For mild cellulitis affecting a small area of skin, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics (by mouth) for your child.
In more severe cases, your child may need to go to hospital for intravenous antibiotics (through a vein). Your child may also see an eye specialist (ophthalmologist) if the cellulitis is near their eye.
Make sure your child takes the antibiotics every day until they are finished. It is important to do this even if the infection seems to have cleared up - there may be infection under the skin that you can't see.
The redness may continue to spread a little during the first 2 days of taking antibiotics. Go back to the doctor if the red area gets much bigger or your child has a fever or seems more unwell. Cellulitis can spread to other parts of the body or to the blood.
Your doctor may mark the edge of the red area with a marker pen. Do not wash this off. This is to see if your child's skin infection is improving.
If your child has a wound which led to the cellulitis, keep it clean and cover it with a dressing.
Your doctor or nurse will tell you how to look after your wound at home.*
Cellulitis does not cause pus. If your child has pus coming from their wound, tell your doctor. There may be an abscess that needs draining so the infection can get better.
How can I care for my child with cellulitis at home?
As well as taking antibiotics, some other things will also help.
Your child needs to rest. This helps their body fight the infection. If your child has cellulitis on their leg, try to stop them walking as much as you can.
Keep the affected area raised
Raise the affected part of your child's body on a pillow or chair when they're sitting or lying down.
You could use a sling when your child is walking around, if their arm or hand has cellulitis.
These help reduce swelling. Continue to do this for the first 48 hours at least.
Eat and drink normally
Encourage your child to eat and drink normally.
Cellulitis can be quite painful because it puts pressure on the skin from underneath. Your doctor will discuss appropriate pain relief and may give you a prescription.
Time off from kura or school
At least one day after treatment (such as antibiotics) has started, or check with your doctor or public health nurse.
Cellulitis resource for printing
Workbase and Ministry of Health leaflet (PDF, 490KB).
Information about skin infections
See how to check your child's skin infection - simple steps in pictures
A poster with information about skin conditions and what to do about them
This page last reviewed 28 March 2022.
Do you have any feedback for KidsHealth?
If you have any feedback about the KidsHealth website, or have a suggestion for new content, please get in touch with us.Email us now