Background Cellulitis of the lower leg is a common problem with considerable morbidity. Risk factors are well identified but the relationship between consequences of cellulitis and further episodes is less well understood.
Objectives To review risk factors, treatment and complications in patients with lower leg cellulitis, to determine the frequency of long-term complications and of further episodes, and any relationship between them, and to consider the likely impact of preventive strategies based on these results.
Methods Patients with ascending, presumed streptococcal, cellulitis of the lower leg were identified retrospectively from hospital coding. Hospital records, together with questionnaires to both general practitioners and patients, were used to record subsequent complications and identifiable risk factors for further episodes.
Results Of 171 patients, 81 (47%) had recurrent episodes and 79 (46%) had chronic oedema. The concurrence of these two factors was strongly correlated (P < 0·0002). Based on 143 completed questionnaires, oedema was apparently due to or persistently asymmetrical after the cellulitic episode in 52 (37%), and 19 (13%) had ulceration attributed to, rather than causing, cellulitis. Of those with three or more episodes, half did not lead to hospital admission. Toeweb maceration was reported in only 15% of questionnaires. Use of antibiotic treatment for more than 28 days was associated with a reduced risk of leg ulceration or of prolonged oedema compared with shorter courses, but neither difference was statistically significant.
Conclusions This study demonstrates that the true frequency of postcellulitic oedema, as well as that of further episodes, is probably underestimated. Furthermore, there is a strong association between these factors, each of which is both a risk factor for, and a consequence of, each other, and for which intervention (reduction of oedema or more prolonged antibiotic therapy) may reduce the risk of recurrent infection. By contrast, self-reporting of toeweb maceration is low, so attempts to reduce the risk of recurrent cellulitis by treatment of tinea pedis or bacterial intertrigo may fail.