Cellulitis is a skin infection normally caused by entry of the Streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria through a simple cut or scrape. Symptoms include pain, swelling and warmth at the site of the cut. If you suspect you may have cellulitis, seek medical attention immediately. Often developing into a chronic condition, cellulitis is usually treated with standard antibiotics. However, the disease can hang on in a painful, chronic form, and sufferers often seek the additional relief of alternative treatments.
Always let your doctor know of any non-traditional treatments, as he may need to adjust his treatment plan to accommodate any potential interactions. There is no definitive clinical evidence that any of the following treatments cure cellulitis, and they should never be used in place of conventional treatment.
Cellulitis is a bacterial infection of the skin. Bacteria get into the skin through a cut, scrape, or other wound. Cellulitis can also affect the deeper layers of connective tissue beneath your skin and, in severe cases, spread to your lymph nodes.
Cellulitis most often affects the legs, but it may also affect the arms, face, and scalp. Most times, taking antibiotics cures cellulitis. However, some people can have serious complications. Without treatment, it can become life-threatening.
Signs and Symptoms
Pain and tenderness
Edema, swelling caused by fluid buildup
Redness of the skin
Skin that is warm to the touch
What Causes It?
Cellulitis is caused by bacteria, most often streptococcus or Staphylococcus aureus, which get into the body through a break in the skin:
Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infection is a more serious type of staph infection and is on the rise. Erysipelas, a type of cellulitis involving the lymph system, is often preceded by an upper respiratory infections. Infants, young children, and the elderly are most likely to get erysipelas, which is generally caused by streptococcal infection.
Over-the-counter nutritional supplements are frequently used to alleviate painful cellulitis symptoms. Immune system boosters vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc are often recommended for soothing inflamed skin, while bromelain is used in conjunction with turmeric for reducing tissue inflammation under the skin.
Bromelain and turmeric should not be used without consulting a doctor, as these supplements may cause bleeding and should not be taken with blood-thinning medications or aspirin.
Omega-3 fatty acids like flaxseed oil are recommended for their anti-inflammatory properties, while manganese is helpful in healing skin and connective tissues. Flavinoids, components extracted from such fruits as grapes and blueberries, may reduce risk of cellulitis, and honey can be an effective balm.
The ancient art of herbal treatment is often used by cellulitis sufferers. Natural infection-fighter Echinacea can be applied in gel or cream form to reduce inflammation or taken as an oral supplement to reduce infection.
Many cellulitis sufferers find relief from pain and itching by bathing in warm baths laced with yarrow and goldenseal root.
Tea tree oil can be applied directly to the skin as an antibacterial, and pine tree bark extract, calendula flower and fenugreek seed are other popular options. Often used for post surgical wound healing, topical creams made of gotu kola are considered to have a soothing effect on skin, mucous membranes and connective tissue.
Cellulitis sufferers seek the potent natural anti-inflammatory properties of horse chestnut and ginkgo. As herbs can interfere with the effectiveness of other medications, they should be used only under a doctor’s supervision.
The following supplements may strengthen the immune system and help skin heal:
Vitamin C. Vitamin C can potentially interfere with certain medications, including blood-thinning medications and some chemotherapy agents. Speak with your physician.
Probiotic supplement (containing Lactobacillus acidophilus). For gastrointestinal and immune health. Taking antibiotics can upset the balance between good and bad bacteria in your gut and cause diarrhea. Taking probiotics, or “friendly” bacteria, helps restore the right balance. People with weakened immune systems, or those who take drugs to suppress their immune systems, should ask their doctor before taking probiotics.
Scientists have not studied the way individual nutrients may treat cellulitis, however, flavonoids — chemicals in fruits, such as citrus, blueberries, grapes; in vegetables, including onions; and in tea and red wine — seem to help reduce lymphedema, and the risk for cellulitis. The flavonoid quercetin is available as a supplement. Ask your doctor before taking quercetin, because it may interact with a number of medications, including blood thinners. Very high doses have been associated with kidney damage, so DO NOT take quercetin for more than 2 months without taking a break.
The use of herbs is a time-honored approach to strengthening the body and treating disease. Herbs, however, can trigger side effects and can interact with other herbs, supplements, or medications. For these reasons, you should take herbs with care, under the supervision of your provider.
Cellulitis should be treated with antibiotics. There are no scientific studies showing that any herbs treat cellulitis, but the following herbs may help strengthen the immune system and kill bacteria on the skin. Never put any herbal preparations on an open wound without asking your doctor first. Be sure to tell your doctor about any herbs you use, because some can interfere with taking antibiotics.
Taken by mouth:
Echinacea (Echinacea spp.). Used to strengthen the immune system. It may also be applied to the skin as a gel or cream containing 15% juice of the herb to treat inflammatory skin conditions. People with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, or those who take drugs to suppress their immune systems, should not take echinacea. Some people can be allergice to Echinacea.
Pycnogenol (Pinus pinaster). An extract of the bark of a particular type of pine tree, helps promote skin health. People with autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, or those who take drugs to suppress their immune systems, should not take Pycnogenol. High doses of Pycnogenol may increase the risk of bleeding in certain conditions.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris). Thyme may have antibacterial and antifungal properties, although there is no evidence that it helps treat cellulitis specifically. Thyme can increase the risk of bleeding. Ask your doctor before taking thyme if you take blood-thinning medications, such as warfarin (Coumadin) or aspirin, and never take oil of thyme, which can be toxic.
Gotu kola (Centella asiatica). In a few studies, gotu kola seems to help wounds heal and reduce risk of infection. Gotu kola interacts with a number of medications, so be sure to ask your doctor before taking it. DO NOT take gotu kola if you experience anxiety or have high blood pressure. Gotu kola can interact with many medications that are processed by the liver, and may raise the risk of liver damage. Gotu kola can also interact with sedative medications, including clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), phenobarbital (Donnatal), and zolpidem (Ambien). To be safe, ask your doctor before taking gotu kola.
Applied to the skin — use these only under a doctor’s supervision:
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium). Approved in Great Britain for skin infections and inflammation. It is applied to the skin.
Goldenseal root (Hydrastis canadensis). Which has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, and slippery elm (Ulmus fulva), an antiseptic, may be made into a paste and placed on the affected area 2 times per day.
Calendula flower (Calendula officinalis). Approved in Germany for topical application to leg ulcers, open wounds that can readily become infected.
Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia). Has antibacterial and antifungal properties. Some studies suggest tea tree oil may help fight athlete’s foot and prevent minor cuts and scrapes from becoming infected.
Fenugreek seed (Trigonella foenum-graecum). Which contains flavonoids, is approved in Germany for external use on skin inflammation and infections.
Belcaro G, Cesarone MR, Errichi BM, et al. Diabetic ulcers: microcirculatory improvement and faster healing with pycnogenol. Clin Appl Thromb Hemost. 2006;12(3):318-323.
Bernard P. Management of common bacterial infections of the skin. Curr Opin Infect Dis. 2008;21(2):122-128.
Betts J. The clinical application of honey in wound care. Nurs Times. 2008;104(14):43-44.
Biswas TK, Mukherjee B. Plant medicines of Indian origin for wound healing activity: a review. Int J Low Extrem Wounds. 2003;2(1):25-39.
Blum CL, Menzinger S, Genne D. Cellulitis: clinical manifestations and management. Rev Med Suisse. 2013;9(401):1812-1815.
Cummings S, Ullman D. Everybody’s Guide to Homeopathic Medicines. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam; 1997:320, 331-335, 341, 345.
Dursun N, Liman N, Ozyazgan I, et al. Role of thymus oil in burn wound healing. J Burn Care Rehabil. 2003;24:395-399.
Ferri FF. Cellulitis. Ferri FF, ed. Ferri’s Clinical Advisor 2017. 1st ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2017:258-259.e2.
Keller KL, Fenske NA. Uses of vitamins A, C and E and related compounds in dermatology: a review. J Am Acad Dermatol. 1998;39(4 Pt1):611-625.
Maeda Y, Loughrey A, Earle JA, et al. Antibacterial activity of honey against community-associated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (CA-MRSA). Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2008;14(2):77-82.
Mortimer PS. Therapy approaches for lymphedema. Angiology. 1997;48(1):87-91.
Pasternack MS, Swartz MN. Cellulitis, necrotizing fasciitis, and subcutaneous tissue infections. In: Bennett JE, Dolin R, Blaser MJ, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett’s Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 95.
Ragi J, Pappert A, Rao B, Havkin-Frenkel D, Milgraum S. Oregano extract ointment for wound healing: a randomized, double-blind, petrolatum-controlled study evaluating efficacy. J Drugs Dermatol. 2011;10(10):1168-1172.
Rashed F, Cannon A, Heaton PA, Paul SP. Diagnosis, management and treatment of orbital and periorbital cellulitis in children. Emerg Nurse. 2016;4(1):30-35.
Savage MW, Pottinger JM, Chiang HY, Yohnke KR. Bowdler NC, Herwaldt LA. Surgical site infections and cellulitis after abdominal hysterectomy. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2013;209(2):108.e1-10.
Thomas KS, Crook AM, Nunn AJ, et al. Penicillin to prevent recurrent leg cellulitis. N Eng J Med. 2013;368(18):1695-1703.
Ullman D. Homeopathic Medicine for Children and Infants. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam; 1992:147, 167-168, 214-216.
Ullman D. The Consumer’s Guide to Homeopathy. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam; 1995.