Erysipelas, popularly known as “rose,” is an acute spreading infective disease of the skin or of a mucous membrane due to the action of a streptococcus. Infection invariably takes place through an abrasion of the surface, although this may be so slight that it escapes observation even when sought for. The streptococci are found most abundantly in the lymph spaces just beyond the swollen margin of the inflammatory area, and in the serous blebs which sometimes form on the surface.
Clinical Features.—Facial erysipelas is the commonest clinical variety, infection usually occurring through some slight abrasion in the region of the mouth or nose, or from an operation wound in this area. From this point of origin the inflammation may spread all over the face and scalp as far back as the nape of the neck. It stops, however, at the chin, and never extends on to the front of the neck. There is great œdema of the face, the eyes becoming closed up, and the features unrecognisable. The inflammation may spread to the meninges, the intracranial venous sinuses, the eye, or the ear. In some cases the erysipelas invades the mucous membrane of the mouth, and spreads to the fauces and larynx, setting up an œdema of the glottis which may prove dangerous to life.
Erysipelas occasionally attacks an operation wound that has become septic; and it may accompany septic infection of the genital tract in puerperal women, or the separation of the umbilical cord in infants (erysipelas neonatorum). After an incubation period, which varies from fifteen to sixty hours, the patient complains of headache, pains in the back and limbs, loss of appetite, nausea, and frequently there is vomiting. He has a chill or slight rigor, initiating a rise of temperature to 103°, 104°, or 105° F.; and a full bounding pulse of about 100 (Fig. 25). The tongue is foul, the breath heavy, and, as a rule, the bowels are constipated. There is frequently albuminuria, and occasionally nocturnal delirium. A moderate degree of leucocytosis (15,000 to 20,000) is usually present.
Around the seat of inoculation a diffuse red patch forms, varying in hue from a bright scarlet to a dull brick-red. The edges are slightly raised above the level of the surrounding skin, as may readily be recognised by gently stroking the part from the healthy towards the affected area. The skin is smooth, tense, and glossy, and presents here and there blisters filled with serous fluid. The local temperature is raised, and the part is the seat of a burning sensation and is tender to the touch, the most tender area being the actively spreading zone which lies about half an inch beyond the red margin.
The disease tends to spread spasmodically and irregularly, and the direction and extent of its progress may be recognised by mapping out the peripheral zone of tenderness. Red streaks appear along the lines of the superficial lymph vessels, and the deep lymphatics may sometimes be palpated as firm, tender cords. The neighbouring glands, also, are generally enlarged and tender.
The disease lasts for from two or three days to as many weeks, and relapses are frequent. Spontaneous resolution usually takes place, but the disease may prove fatal from absorption of toxins, involvement of the brain or meninges, or from general streptococcal infection.
Complications.—Diffuse suppurative cellulitis is the most serious local complication, and results from a mixed infection with other pyogenic bacteria. Small localised superficial abscesses may form during the convalescent stage. They are doubtless due to the action of skin bacteria, which attack the tissues devitalised by the erysipelas. A persistent form of œdema sometimes remains after recurrent attacks of erysipelas, especially when they affect the face or the lower extremity, a condition which is referred to with elephantiasis.
Treatment.—The first indication is to endeavour to arrest the spread of the process. We have found that by painting with linimentum iodi, a ring half an inch broad, about an inch in front of the peripheral tender zone—not the red margin—an artificial leucocytosis is produced, and the advancing streptococci are thereby arrested. Several coats of the iodine are applied, one after the other, and this is repeated daily for several days, even although the erysipelas has not overstepped the ring. Success depends upon using the liniment of iodine (the tincture is not strong enough), and in applying it well in front of the disease. To allay pain the most useful local applications are ichthyol ointment (1 in 6), or lead and opium fomentations.
The general treatment consists in attending to the emunctories, in administrating quinine in small—two-grain—doses every four hours, or salicylate of iron (2–5 gr. every three hours), and in giving plenty of fluid nourishment. It is worthy of note that the anti-streptococcic serum has proved of less value in the treatment of erysipelas than might have been expected, probably because the serum is not made from the proper strain of streptococcus.
It is not necessary to isolate cases of erysipelas, provided the usual precautions against carrying infection from one patient to another are rigidly carried out.