The questions I get asked most are, “How do you treat cellulitis? Do I need to cover methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)?”
With the emergence of community-associated MRSA as the most common cause of purulent skin infections in the United States, treatment of cellulitis (without a wound or discharge) has veered toward combination cephalexin and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole (TMP/SMX), the latter antibiotic added to cover MRSA. Recently, my colleagues and I published the results of a placebo-controlled trial that demonstrated that TMP/SMX treatment of patients with a drained skin abscess (most caused by MRSA) was associated with better outcomes (eg, higher cure rates and lower rates of recurrences, additional drainage procedures, hospitalizations, and household infections). So it’s logical that MRSA coverage would lead to better outcomes for cellulitis.
Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) treatment guidelines state that uncomplicated cellulitis can be treated with just penicillin, providing fodder for yet another target for ED antibiotic-overuse shaming. Get real; in practice, no one, not even an infectious disease specialist, uses penicillin alone to treat cellulitis, except maybe for redness around the rim of a syphilitic chancre!
Unlike with abscesses, we almost never know the cause of cellulitis because there’s nothing to culture. Studies have tried unsuccessfully to use conventional cultures of skin biopsies. You may recall being directed as an intern to aspirate the leading edge. All for naught. Serological studies have suggested -strep, but these tests might yield false positives. Rarely, a blood culture kicks out a strep or staph, but these cases hardly reflect usual circumstances. Our group even tried to unlock this mystery by comparing polymerase chain reaction and pyrosequencing results from skin biopsies of the infected and opposite limb uninfected site with no luck.1
In the May 23, 2017, issue of JAMA, our five-ED research group reported on the first large trial to directly address whether the addition of an antibiotic with MRSA activity resulted in better outcomes among patients followed for four to six weeks. Five-hundred mostly adult patients with cellulitis were randomized to receive either oral cephalexin (500 mg QID) plus placebo or cephalexin (500 mg QID) plus TMP/SMX (2 DS BID) for seven days. This was “pure” cellulitis without a wound or drainage.
As you can see from Table 1, outcomes were similar between the groups in terms of initial cure rates, recurrent infections, and additional drainage procedures. Of interest was that among the minority who failed in each group, some developed abscesses or wounds that grew MRSA. This suggested that MRSA plays a role in some cellulitis cases, but overall, adding an antibiotic with MRSA activity did not improve outcomes.
I am next most frequently asked, “Do you really work with Dr. Greg Moran?” Yes, so for this article, I interviewed Gregory J. Moran, MD, at the department of emergency medicine and division of infectious diseases at Olive View–UCLA Medical Center, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA in Los Angeles, who was the paper’s first author.