Infections are bad news. They’re sore, painful to touch, ugly to look at, prevent proper wound healing, and can even spread to other parts of your body.
Some wounds are more prone to infection than others. The risk of infection depends on the nature of the wound. For example, cat and dog bites, or a jagged cut from dirty, rusty tools are more likely to get infected than a smooth cut from a clean kitchen knife.
When it comes to preventing infection, nothing is more important than receiving good urgent care for wounds, including proper aftercare at home.
We see a lot of lacerations at CityHealth Urgent Care, and making sure they don’t get infected is very important. So, we’ve created this guide to help you understand, spot, and prevent infected wounds.
What is an Infection?
Infections are caused when bacteria, viruses, or other microbes enter your body, such as through an open wound. Your body goes into defensive mode to fight off these invaders, which results in many of the unpleasant side effects of infection: swelling, pus, or fever, to name a few.
Infections can form in different sites, such as just below the skin’s surface or deep inside the tissue below. Minor infections near the surface of the skin can often be treated at home by keeping the injured area clean and allowing the body to rest and recover. However, more severe or longer-lasting infections require professional medical attention.
It’s essential to treat infections as early as possible, as they can worsen and cause serious side effects if left untreated. Untreated infections may become abscessed (filled with pus), or the bacteria may reach the bloodstream and spread to other parts of the body.
The infection may travel deeper underneath the skin, becoming even harder to treat and causing conditions like cellulitis or sepsis, a severe infection.
In extreme cases, an untreated infection can result in a condition called necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as “the flesh-eating disease.” While these cases are rare, it does happen. So if you have a laceration (cut), scrape, or other wound that doesn’t look like it’s healing correctly, don’t ignore it! Instead, be on the lookout for some common signs of infection.
How to Spot an Infection
The signs of an infection include:
- Oozing fluid or pus
- Pain that becomes more intense over time
- Redness surrounding the wound
- A red line that tracks from the injury to your heart
- A yellowy scab or a pimple (abscess) covering the wound
- Blistery sores
- Swelling that increases a few days after developing
- A wound that hasn’t improved within ten days
Infection Risk Factors
There are some medical conditions that put you at a higher risk of developing an infection. These include:
- Compromised immune system
- Advanced age
- Nutrient or vitamin deficiency
- Diminished blood circulation
If you have any of the above conditions or are otherwise in poor health, be extra diligent about caring for any wounds you have.
What to Do After an Injury
The single most important thing you can do after an injury is to keep the wound clean.
If the cut’s edges are jagged or wide open, if the wound is very deep, was caused by something dirty, or if the injury contains dirt or debris, it should be seen by an urgent care clinician right away.
Animal bites, such as dog and cat bites, should also receive immediate medical attention due to the high likelihood of infection. Animals do not have clean mouths, and their saliva is often loaded with bacteria. Their teeth, especially cat teeth, drive this bacteria deep into wounds, where it can multiply quickly and is very hard to clean.
If the laceration is deep, long, jagged, bleeds heavily, continues to bleed after pressure has been applied, or spurts blood, seek urgent medical care right away.
Most small wounds will heal fine on their own, provided they are kept clean.
Once bleeding has stopped, wash the wound with soap and water. Apply antibacterial ointment if you have any on hand. Avoid harsh chemicals like rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide, as these can dry wounds, which can actually slow healing.
Additionally, seek urgent medical care if it’s been five years or longer since your last tetanus shot, especially if the laceration is the result of a bite from a strange animal or something rusty or dirty, even if the wound does not appear serious. Tetanus bacteria can cause a life-threatening condition called lockjaw, where the victim’s muscles tighten, and they have difficulty breathing, swallowing, or even opening their mouth.
After an urgent care clinician has inspected your injury, he or she will decide if it needs sutures (stitches). Stitches help wounds heal faster, and they can also make scars less visible.
Depending on the nature and severity of the wound, your clinician may recommend aiding healing with staples, medical adhesive tape, or a liquid adhesive. Sutures or clips will require a follow-up visit for removal, whereas liquid adhesive stitches will wear away on their own.
How to Prevent Infection
Preventing infection is very simple, but not always easy!
The most important thing is the keep the wound as clean as possible. This applies to the bandages and area around the wound as well.
Clean the injury with soap and water, and apply an antibiotic cream. Apply a sterile gauze dressing and secure it with medical tape or a bandage depending on the wound’s location, remembering not to wrap so tightly that it blocks circulation.
Change bandages daily or when they become soiled. Always wash your hands thoroughly before touching a wound, or wear sterile gloves. Every time you change dressings, inspect the wound for redness, increased swelling, oozing pus, or foul-smelling discharge, all of which indicate infection.
If you think a wound is becoming infected or not healing properly, seek medical advice immediately. Early treatment can help prevent the infection from spreading or worsening. Book a virtual visit to video conference with an urgent care provider from the comfort and safety of your home. You’ll be able to show them the wound, and they can advise you on whether or not it may need additional care. Alternatively, you can visit an urgent care center or doctor’s office.
The second thing to do is not to pick at the wound. If you tend to poke or pick at scabs or, you’ll need to stop. Picking or poking introduces bacteria from your fingers into the still-healing wound, which is very vulnerable to infection.
If you must touch the wound, for example to change bandages or clean it, thoroughly wash your hands, or wear disposable medical gloves before doing so.
If you have undergone surgery and are concerned about infection, keep in mind that incision wounds following surgery may become infected, but this happens infrequently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report confirming that from 2006 to 2008, only around 1.9% of incision wounds developed an infection in the U.S.
When to Seek Urgent Care
If you think that a wound is becoming infected, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible.
If you develop a fever, numbness to the injured area, or notice a red line forming from the injury to the heart, seek urgent or emergency medical care immediately, as these are signs of a serious or spreading infection.
Other signs that you need to see a medical professional include increasing redness, swelling, or pain around the wound. Oozing liquid, pus or an abscess forming are other signs of infection that need to be seen by a doctor, particularly if the discharge smells bad, which could be a sign of necrosis (dead flesh).
Does This Look Infected?
When left untreated, an infection of the skin can spread and enter your bloodstream. If this happens, it may turn into a life-threatening condition.
Even infections that don’t spread can still be quite painful and may result in permanent scarring.
Keep wounds clean, always wash your hands, and avoid touching healing wounds. If a wound doesn’t heal, seek urgent care.
With our new virtual visits, you can video chat with one of our friendly clinicians and get the care you need from the comfort of your home.