How Cracked heels can let killer bacteria invade your body
How Cracked heels can let killer bacteria
One night as Chris Banting was undressing for bed, he was surprised
when his wife Helen pointed out to him that the back of his right calf was
a worrying scarlet colour.
'It was strange because I wasn't in any discomfort at all,' says Chris, 62.
'If you have an infection, you think you'd be in pain or running a temperature,
but I felt fine.'
It was November 2007 and the busiest time of the year in his job as a charity
fundraising manager, but he decided it was something he should get checked
In fact, Chris was suffering from cellulitis - a serious bacterial infection of the
Left untreated, the bacteria can spread through the body and cause potentially
fatal blood poisoning or an infection of the muscle, bone or heart valve.
Around 70,000 people are hospitalised with it every year.
Cellulitis - not to be confused with cellulite - affects the deep layer of skin
known as the dermis, and sometimes the layer of fat and soft tissues beneath.
Initially, it causes the skin to become sore, red and swollen.
Though it commonly affects the lower legs, it can occur on any part of the body.
Dr Nick Lowe, consultant dermatologist and spokesperson for the
British Skin Foundation, explains that we all have bacteria living on our skin.
Usually this doesn't cause any harm, but if the skin is damaged by an ulcer, cut,
graze or insect bite, or even if it is simply cracked through conditions such as
eczema, the bacteria can get in, causing an infection.
Nail infections or ingrown toenails can also be a source.
'When this happens, the infected area becomes inflamed, tender, red and
often hot,' says Dr Lowe.
'It may also blister. The infection is usually accompanied by symptoms of feeling
generally unwell, including fever and nausea.'
Those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable, as their bodies
lack the strength to fight off the infection.
Other risk factors include diabetes, as it often causes poor blood supply to the skin,
which may lead to ulcers that can serve as an entry point for bacteria.
Athlete's foot can also make you more prone to cellulitis, as this may cause the skin to
A severe case of cracked heels could make you more vulnerable, too. As can
lymphedema - a condition that causes swelling in a part of the body because of fluid
build-up under the skin.
However, cellulitis can occur without a wound, when bacteria enters through
the lymphatic system.
The speed at which the symptoms manifest themselves depends on the
health of the infected patient.
'In a very healthy person, symptoms may take up to a week to appear,' says Dr Lowe.
'But in the elderly or those with weakened immune systems, symptoms can come
on rapidly, in just a day or two.
'This is why prompt diagnosis-and treatment with antibiotics is vital, before the
When Chris Banting discovered the angry rash on his leg, he made an appointment
at an out- of-hours clinic near his home in Bristol.
The doctor diagnosed cellulitis and gave Chris a prescription for antibiotics.
'He told me the most likely point of entry for the bacteria that had caused
my cellulitis had been cracks on the soles of my feet,' says Chris.
'I'd had athlete's foot since I was a teenager, and on top of a recent attack, which I'd
been treating with an anti-fungal cream, had developed a secondary fungal
infection that had caused the cracks.
'I'd heard cellulitis can potentially kill you, but that didn't even enter my head
then. My wife had been through the same thing, and although she'd spent a week
in hospital, she'd been cured, so I thought I'd take the antibiotics and I'd be fine.'
Generally, a course of antibiotics is enough to clear up the infection, but despite
the prompt diagnosis, his symptoms got progressively worse.
Just two days later, he had developed a huge blister on his right calf, around
one-and-a-half inches deep and the diameter of a grapefruit.
'I'd never seen anything like it,' says Chris. 'It seemed to have come out of
'Worse still, the stuff leaking out of it looked like some kind of machine oil.
It was revolting!'
Chris went straight to his GP, who took one look at his leg and told him he
needed to go to hospital.
'She explained the infection had gone beyond the stage when oral
antibiotics would help, and that I'd need to be admitted for intravenous
antibiotics,' he says.
'It was all rather dramatic and happened very quickly.'
Chris was admitted to the Bristol Royal Infirmary.
'One of the first things the doctors did was to draw on my leg with a
marker pen around the outline of the infected skin, so they could keep
track of whether it was spreading or not,' says Chris.
'It would seem it can spread rapidly in some instances - but luckily mine
stayed roughly the same.'
Thankfully, within a couple of days, Chris's infection began to dwindle
(his athlete's foot was also effectively treated).
He remained in hospital for a week and was then released to the care
of his GP surgery, where he went daily for ten days to have his dressings
Now the only lasting sign he ever suffered from cellulitis is a patch of
discoloured skin extending from behind the knee to the ankle bone.
Though he's recovered, Chris could well suffer a recurrence. Around
one-third of people develop cellulitis again within three years.
'Once you've had cellulitis, you're more likely to get it again - and in
the same area,' says Dr Lowe.
'This is because the infection can damage the lymph channels in the
area, so they become less efficient at filtering out germs.
Therefore, you need to be scrupulous about skin cleansing and keeping
your skin moisturised, to prevent it drying out and cracking.'
Meanwhile, Chris is thankful for the first-class treatment he received -
and to his wife for spotting the symptoms in the first place.
'If she hadn't, goodness knows what could have happened,' he says.
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