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You scraped your knee a few days ago. Now your cut is surrounded by angry, red skin that’s sore, warm to the touch, and emitting a gross amount of pus. Are you suffering from an infected wound? Chances are the answer is “yes.” Here’s what to look for and how to treat an infected cut before it gets worse.
A regular cut is an area of damage to the skin. This can appear anywhere there’s been a trauma (i.e. a fall or scrape). Generally, this wound will heal on its own. Things start to get complicated when germs enter the picture. That benign wound can turn into an infected cut once germs (i.e. bacteria) enter the sensitive tissue beneath the skin. Things can start to go south as quickly as two or three days after contact with the germ. The once uninfected wound will slowly become more painful, warm, swollen, red and pus-filled.
What Are the Signs of an Infected Wound?
At first, an infected wound may appear red and swollen. When touched, it will likely feel hot and tender. As the infection worsens, the redness and swelling will spread and become more painful. Still not sure if you’re suffering from an infected cut? Here are 11 symptoms to look out for, says Dr. Meghan Feely, media expert for the American Academy of Dermatology and a board-certified dermatologist based in New York and New Jersey:
- Reddened skin around the wound
- Watery-looking fluid collecting in the wound
- Warm skin around the wound
- Tenderness on and around the wound
- Honey-colored crusting
- Thick yellow, green or brown pus escaping from the wound that smells strong, pungent, foul or musty
- Enlarged lymph nodes
- Red steaks around the wound
How to Treat an Infected Wound
First, clean the wound (regular soap and water is fine or alcohol wipes if you’re away from a sink). Then remove any dirt, splinters or other debris from the cut. If the cut seems minor, and only shows a little red around its sides, add some antibiotic ointment (e.g. Neosporin), and cover with a bandage until it scabs over.
See a board-certified dermatologist if you notice the following:
- Signs of an infected wound (e.g. increased redness, pus, swelling, heat, and fever)
- A large, deep cut
- Debris inside the wound
- Unstoppable bleeding
- A cut resulting from an animal or human bite
The dermatologist may take a culture to identify the organism to blame for your infection and will determine proper treatment for your infected wound. For instance, the “physician may prescribe a topical antibiotic as well as an oral antibiotic, based on your clinical presentation” Feely says.
Those with more serious complications such as tetanus (a.k.a. lockjaw), will require a tetanus vaccine as well as antitoxin or tetanus immune globulin to treat the infection and prevent it from spreading further. Those with serious infections such as sepsis or septic shock may require intensive care treatment and possibly life support in a hospital.
Should You Cover an Infected Wound?
Yes. “In general, keep the site clean and covered,” Feely says. Not only will this help protect the wound from getting dirty (and therefore exposed to further bacteria), but it will also help to keep the medication on the infected cut. Make sure the dressing (i.e. a bandage or gauze) doesn’t stick to the cut. Depending on the location and severity of your infected cut, “your physician will discuss how frequently to change the dressing,” she explains.
Another risk of infection is picking scabs. Keeping your wound covered will help prevent you from picking at your cut or catching it on something that will pull off the scab.
Side Effects of an Infected Wound
Never ignore an infected cut, says Feely. In addition to more common unpleasant side-effects such as pain, redness, fever and swelling, an untreated infection could lead to cellulitis, a common bacterial infection of the skin that can spread to deeper tissues. “The infection, if left untreated, may spread from the skin to the lymphatics and bloodstream,” which could turn into a severe infection called sepsis and turn fatal, she warns.
In addition to these conditions, the following complications can also arise from an infected wound:
- Tetanus (a potentially fatal bacterial infection that causes severe muscle spasms)
- Impetigo (a bacterial skin infection that can spread easily and cause scarring and pigment changes)
- Sepsis or septic shock
- Abscess (a painful, pus- and bacteria-filled mass)
- Infection that has spread to the bloodstream and infected other organs
- Death of tissue surrounding the infected cut (this could include muscle, connective tissue and bones)
- Flesh-eating disease (a.k.a. necrotizing fasciitis) – this is an extremely rare side-effect
When to See a Doctor for an Infected Cut
Once you’ve noted the tell-tale signs of an infected cut, see a doctor urgently, recommends Feely. You’ll likely need treatment with oral or topical antibiotics to prevent the spread of infection.
RISK FACTORS FOR AN INFECTED CUT
While healthy people can develop an infected wound, those with weakened immune systems are at a much higher risk of infection, states an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The following circumstances can also increase your risk of an infected wound:
- A cut resulting from contact with a dirty object
- A cut with jagged edges
- A large, deep cut
- Age (the elderly are at a more increased risk of infection)
- Being bitten by an animal or human
- Debris inside the wound
- Diabetes (Types 1 and 2)
- Human immunodeficiency virus infection
- Weakened immune system (i.e. from chemotherapy, steroids or an autoimmune disease)
For related reading, please visit these posts:
- When a Staph Infection Becomes Serious
- Picking Scabs: Why We Do It and How to Stop
- Pus: An Unmistakable Sign of Infection
- Preventing Bedsores: 8 Strategies to Help
- Scar Treatment That Works: 17 Ways to Reduce (and Prevent) Unsightly Scars
This article was originally published in 2018. It is regularly updated.