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Cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin, used to be easy to control with antibiotics. With growing problems with antibiotic resistance, however, some doctors are going back to traditional medicine to find a cure

Before the 1940's, no one could go to the doctor to get a quick shot of penicillin. Even simple infections could quickly have deadly consequences.

Suppose the year was 1932 and you, like a family friend of mine who was then 14 years old, concocted a plan to get an excused absence from school so you wouldn't have to take a geometry exam. You would go out into the back yard, roll around in some poison ivy, and then have to be allowed to stay home because rashes could be contagious, and your teacher would not allow you to infect the other children.

That's exactly what my now 97-year-old friend Vernon did, and his plan worked. Unfortunately, his plan worked too well, and the tiny cuts and scratches he got from rubbing his skin over the rough vine became infected. 

The morning of the geometry test he just felt a little itchy. The morning after the geometry test he was seriously ill. He had a fever, and his legs were swollen. Dozens of tiny blisters had broken out, oozing blood and pus that had dried on his bedsheets. His mother had to build a fire, heat water, fill the bathtub, and dump Vernon, pus-filled sheets and all, into the tub until they could be removed from his body. That turned out to be the easy part of his treatment for a disease we would now call bacterial cellulitis.

Treating Cellulitis In The Pre-Antibiotic Age

Antibiotics were not easy to get in the United States until about 1950, and in other parts of the world for about a decade after that. My elderly friend Vernon had to be treated with anything his parents and his doctor (who, incidentally, charged $1 for the house call) could improvise. At first his parents tried dabbing the blisters all over his legs with Mercurochrome, a toxic liquid that worked by killing bacteria and skin at the same time. Then they had him strip to his underwear and lie out in the sun. When Vernon wasn't better after three days, the doctor came back with a salve made from a substance like cold cream, ammonia, and mercury. This treatment was so toxic that it not only killed bacteria, it stimulated the immune system to clear out dead tissue so skin could grow back. 
Vernon didn't have to take any tests at school for about three weeks.

Antibiotic Resistance Is Bringing Back The Pre-Antibiotic Era

For about 20 years after the introduction of antibiotics into modern medicine, they were essentially a wonder drug. A shot of penicillin would be all most people needed to beat a potentially fatal skin infection. About 1968, however, bacteria began to appear that did not respond to antibiotics. Ironically, the more antibiotics were used, the more bacteria developed that were immune to them. 
Nowadays, doctors don't even try to treat a serious case of cellulitis with methicillin, which use to be the go-to cure. For infections that appear to be life-threatening, the doctor will admit the patient to hospital and simply start giving half a dozen IV antibiotics while waiting for lab results to identify the microorganism. For less serious infections, the doctor's first remedy may be a few hours under a sun lamp (rather than a few hours in the back yard). Doctors are returning to natural remedies for cellulitis.
Continue reading after recommendations

  • Stevens DL, Bisno AL, Chambers HF, et al. Practice guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of soft tissue infections: 2014 Update by the Infectious Disease Society of America. Clin Ifect Dis. 15 July 2014. 59(2): 310-52.
  • Photo by Robert Rister/SteadyHealth
  • Photo by Robert Rister/SteadyHealth
  • Photo by Robert Rister/SteadyHealth

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