Erysipelas is a bacterial infection of the upper dermis extending to the subcutaneous lymphatic vessels which causes a rash characterized by a well-defined area or areas of bright red, inflamed and rough or leathery skin. It usually affects skin on the face, arms, legs, hands and feet. It is caused by beta-hemolytic group A Streptococcusbacteria on scratches or otherwise infected areas. Erysipelas is more superficial than cellulitis, and is typically more raised and demarcated. The term is from Greek ?, meaning "red skin".
In animals, erysipelas is a disease caused by infection with the bacteriumErysipelothrix rhusiopathiae. The disease caused in animals is called Diamond Skin Disease, which occurs especially in pigs. Heart valves and skin are affected. Erysipelothrix rhusiopathiae can also infect humans, but in that case the infection is known as erysipeloid.
Signs and symptoms
Erysipelas on an arm
Erysipelas on a leg
Affected individuals typically develop symptoms including high fevers, shaking, chills, fatigue, headaches, vomiting, and general illness within 48 hours of the initial infection. The erythematous skin lesion enlarges rapidly and has a sharply demarcated, raised edge. It appears as a red, swollen, warm, and painful rash, similar in consistency to an orange peel.
More severe infections can result in vesicles (pox or insect bite-like marks), blisters, and petechiae (small purple or red spots), with possible skin necrosis (death). Lymph nodes may be swollen, and lymphedema may occur. Occasionally, a red streak extending to the lymph node can be seen.
The infection may occur on any part of the skin, including the face, arms, fingers, legs and toes; it tends to favour the extremities. Fat tissue and facial areas, typically around the eyes, ears, and cheeks, are most susceptible to infection. Repeated infection of the extremities can lead to chronic swelling (lymphoedema).
Most cases of erysipelas are due to Streptococcus pyogenes (also known as beta-hemolytic group A streptococci), although non-group A streptococci can also be the causative agent. Beta-hemolytic, non-group A streptococci include Streptococcus agalactiae, also known as group B strep or GBS. Historically, the face was most affected; today, the legs are affected most often. The rash is due to an exotoxin, not the Streptococcus bacteria, and is found in areas where no symptoms are present; e.g., the infection may be in the nasopharynx, but the rash is found usually on the epidermis and superficial lymphatics.
Erysipelas infections can enter the skin through minor trauma, insect bites, dog bites, eczema, athlete's foot, surgical incisions and ulcers and often originate from streptococci bacteria in the subject's own nasal passages. Infection sets in after a small scratch or abrasion spreads, resulting in toxaemia.
Erysipelas does not affect subcutaneous tissue. It does not release pus, only serum or serous fluid. Subcutaneous edema may lead the physician to misdiagnose it as cellulitis, but the pattern of the rash is much more well circumscribed and sharply marginated than the rash of cellulitis.[UpToDate 1]
This disease is diagnosed mainly by the appearance of well-demarcated rash and inflammation. Blood cultures are unreliable for diagnosis of the disease, but may be used to test for sepsis. Erysipelas must be differentiated from herpes zoster, angioedema, contact dermatitis, erythema chronicum migrans of early Lyme disease, gout, septic arthritis, septic bursitis, vasculitis, allergic reaction to an insect bite, acute drug reaction, deep venous thrombosis and diffuse inflammatory carcinoma of the breast.
Erysipelas can be distinguished from cellulitis by its raised advancing edges and sharp borders. Elevation of the antistreptolysin O titer occurs after around 10 days of illness.
Depending on the severity, treatment involves either oral or intravenous antibiotics, using penicillins, clindamycin, or erythromycin. While illness symptoms resolve in a day or two, the skin may take weeks to return to normal.
Because of the risk of reinfection, prophylactic antibiotics are sometimes used after resolution of the initial condition. However, this approach does not always stop reinfection.
Recurrence of infection: Erysipelas can recur in 18-30% of cases even after antibiotic treatment. A chronic state of recurrent erysipelas infections can occur with several predisposing factors including alcoholism, diabetes, and tinea pedis (athlete's foot). Another predisposing factor is chronic cutaneous edema, such as can in turn be caused by venous insufficiency or heart failure.
Necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as "flesh-eating" bacterial infection, is a potentially deadly exacerbation of the infection if it spreads to deeper tissue.
In Willa Cather's "One of Ours", the main character, Claude, contracts the disease in "the queerest" way, after being dragged into wire by mules, and the next day continuing to work in the dust. The disease plays a key role in the novel, persuading him to marry Enid after she cares for him in recovery. (Book II, Chapter IV, pg 138).