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Cellulitis - Complications of cellulitis

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Complications of cellulitis can include blood poisoning, abscesses, and meningitis.

Blood poisoning

If the bacteria that infect your skin and tissue enter your bloodstream, they can cause blood poisoning (septicaemia). Symptoms of blood poisoning include:

  • high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • rapid heart beat
  • rapid breathing
  • low blood pressure, which will make you feel dizzy when you stand up
  • changes in mental behaviour, such as confusion or disorientation
  • diarrhoea
  • reduced urine flow
  • cold, clammy skin
  • pale skin
  • loss of consciousness

If you have any of these symptoms, call 999 for an ambulance.

See blood poisoning for more information about this condition.

Abscess

Some cases of cellulitis can result in an abscess forming near the site of the infection. 

An abscess is a swollen, pus-filled lump under the surface of the skin. It is caused by a build-up of bacteria and dead white blood cells.

In some cases, the antibiotics that are used to treat cellulitis may also help to remove the abscess. However, if this is not the case, the pus will have to be drained from the abscess through a small cut in your skin.

See abscess for more information.

Facial cellulitis and meningitis

Facial cellulitis is an uncommon form of cellulitis that develops on the skin of the face. It accounts for an estimated 8.5% of all cases of cellulitis.

Facial cellulitis is most common in children under three years old and older adults above 50. If facial cellulitis is left untreated in children, the bacteria can potentially spread to the outer membranes of their brain (the meninges) and trigger a serious brain infection called meningitis.

Symptoms of meningitis can differ in adults, but symptoms in babies and children under three years old include:

  • becoming floppy and unresponsive, or stiff with jerky movements
  • becoming irritable and not wanting to be held
  • unusual crying
  • vomiting and refusing feeds
  • pale and blotchy skin
  • loss of appetite
  • staring expression
  • very sleepy and reluctant to wake up

Bacterial meningitis is very serious and should be treated as a medical emergency. If left untreated, a bacterial infection can cause severe brain damage and infect the blood.

If you suspect that your child has symptoms of meningitis, call 999 immediately for an ambulance.

The best way to protect your child against meningitis is to make sure they have been vaccinated with the:

  • DTaP/IPV/Hib (5-in-1) vaccination, which should be given between the ages of two and four months
  • the Hib/MenC booster, which should be given after the child's first birthday

The vaccine and the booster provide immunity against two leading causes of meningitis in children:

  • haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria
  • group C meningococcal bacteria

Ask your GP if you are unsure whether your child's vaccinations are up to date.

See meningitis and the vaccination planner for more information.

Abscess
An abscess is a lump containing pus, which is made by the body during infection.
Antibiotics
Antibiotics are medicines that can be used to treat infections caused by micro-organisms, usually bacteria or fungi. For example amoxicillin, streptomycin and erythromycin.
Heart valves
Heart valves are four sets of flaps that control the direction that blood pumps around the heart.
Vein
Veins are blood vessels that carry blood from the rest of the body back to the heart.
Medical Review: July 28, 2012
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